Sunday Salon: The Right to Challenge?

SundaySalonThis week, readers all over the United States—and in other parts of the world—took time to shout out for free speech in honor of Banned Books week. Most of the conversation about Banned Book week has focused on the importance of free speech and of free access to ideas some might find offensive. But there’s been some other conversation that I think raises some interesting questions about the whole notion of banning or challenging books.

First, this Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Mitchell Muncy points out that here in the United States books cannot be fully banned. Our government is not in the business of banning books. If your school or public library chooses to pull a book from its shelves (which Muncy notes is a rare occurrence), you can still order it online. It’s certainly true that for many people no book is completely out of reach, no matter how objectionable the content. However, as Colleen points out at Chasing Ray, some people cannot afford to purchase books, and some only have one library within a reasonable distance. I agree with Colleen that we mustn’t blithely pull books from library shelves under the assumption that readers can get them elsewhere. For some, pulling a book from the library is, in effect, banning that book. And to Muncy’s point that Banned Books Week is pointless because libraries rarely actually pull books from their shelves, I’d suggest that such actions are rare partly because of awareness-raising events like Banned Books Week.

That said, I’m not convinced that it’s helpful to vilify all book challengers. Stacked adds some useful points to the conversation. She points out that there may be times when librarians are unaware of a book’s potential to offend, and the public’s right to challenge helps librarians understand what their community wants and helps them decide which books belong in the children’s section and which should be available only by special request.

So I’m left wondering, when–if ever–is it appropriate to challenge a book? I’ve come to the following conclusions, subject to change as my thoughts develop. First, I don’t think I would ever support banning a book from a public library altogether. A school library, however, is a different matter. If a book seems too mature for the oldest students in the school, it probably doesn’t belong there. For me, it’s not so much a question of whether I agree with the ideas presented but whether the ideas are presented in an age-appropriate way. I imagine most school librarians operate with the principle in mind, but if parents think an inappropriate book has slipped through, they have the right to alert the librarian.

The difficulty, however, for school librarians, is when parents want to protect their children from ideas they find objectionable. I can understand that desire, but these parents don’t have the right to keep everyone else’s children from hearing those ideas. And even if we agree on that point, where do we draw the line when it comes to their own children? What, for example, about kids who are struggling with their sexuality and would benefit from reading a sensitive portrayal of a teen going through the same thing? What if their parents object? At what point must children have the right to choose for themselves? The same principles—and the same questions—apply to the public library’s children’s section.

But what about the adult section? As taxpayers we do pay for the books that appear on the shelves. Do we have a right to dictate what should or should not be there? To some extent, yes we do. But again, the librarians have a responsibility to ensure that the books in the library represent the views of the whole community, not just the majority or the most vocal ones. If I want the library to stock books that represent my point of view—and I do—I must be willing to accept that the library will sometimes also stock books that offend me. Now if I were to visit my library’s political section and find nothing but Ann Coulter, you can bet I’d be raising a challenge, but the challenge would be less about exclusion than of inclusion. Why Ann Coulter and no Al Franken? (And I’d support someone who asked why Franken and no Coulter.)

Even though I might not ever want to pull a book from the public library, I’m not ready to storm the castle when I hear that others do. So yes, I read Banned and Challenged Books, and I will continue to do so, but I recognize that others have the right to question the library’s book choices.

On another note, Rebecca has launched a very exciting project called the Classics Circuit to raise awareness of classic authors by creating “author tours” in which works by the featured author will appear on different blogs throughout the month. In November, participating bloggers will be reading books by Wilkie Collins. Starting in mid-November, Elizabeth Gaskell will be making the rounds. Sign-ups for the Collins tour are closed, but the Gaskell sign-ups will start this week. Visit The Classics Circuit to sign up or to suggest authors for future tours.

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Completed

  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Very good, but not my pick for the Booker win.

Currently Reading

  • Summertime by J.M Coetzee. Decided to read this next, instead of The Glass House, as previously planned, because I’ll have a better chance of finishing it before the winner is announced on Tuesday.
  • Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl on audio. A memoir by the former editor of Gourmet magazine. I expect to finish it this week.
  • The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Lessons in writing poetry. I’ve reached the chapter on ballads but may not get any further this week. (I’m taking it very slowly.)

On Deck

  • The rest of the Booker shortlist: The Glass House by Simon Mawer and The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. If I finish Summertime before Tuesday, I’ll read one of these, but it’s unlikely I’ll get to them both. The other will probably go on the back burner unless it happens to win.
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. A companion novel to Oryx and Crake.
  • Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Insights into animal’s emotional lives. I’ve heard Grandin interviewed and find her ideas interesting. On audio from the library.
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I’ve been meaning to reread this for a while, and audio is great for rereading, so I snagged it when I saw it on the library’s audio shelves.

New Acquisitions

  • The complete works of the Brontë sisters. I lucked out and won a nice Folio Society set for a very good price on Ebay.
  • The Sonnets by Warwick Collins. A novel about Shakespeare’s sonnets. Won in a giveaway from Kim at Reading Matters.

Books to Remember

  •  The True Story of Hansel and Gretel  by Louise Murphy. Claire put this on my radar when she won it in my BBAW giveaway, and Nymeth’s review at Things Mean a Lot convinced me I should read it. 
  • Sue Miller. For some reason, I’ve dismissed Sue Miller as another writer of popular “light fiction that claims to be heavy” (ala Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve), but seeing reviews this week from Ready When You Are, CB, and Tales from a Reading Room this week made me reconsider that view. Any suggestions on what to start with?
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11 Responses to Sunday Salon: The Right to Challenge?

  1. Personally, I think that an elementary school library has more of a right to control their content than a middle school or high school library to make sure everything is presented appropriately. Plus, if a kid has a voracious enough appetite for reading, they’ll find ways to read the books they want to read.

    In high school, I was asked to read Jodi Picoult’s The Tenth Circle to see if it was appropriate for our high school library. When I graduated, we still didn’t carry her Nineteen Minutes, because it was about a school shooting. Still, as you’ve said, actual banning of books is quite rare these days.

  2. Claire says:

    I think that the judgement of educators and librarians should be trusted; parents can choose what their children read at home, readers can choose what they wish to read, and librarians and teachers have the right to choose what they stock/teach.

    I am interested what you will think of Summertime; I thought it was an exceptionally accomplished and though-provoking read although not necessarily enjoyable.

    I am very excited about reading my copy of The True Story of Hansel & Gretel, especially after reading Nymeth’s review. I am hoping to read it later this month.

  3. Jeane says:

    You raise some very interesting points. I think I agree with Claire; a parent has the right to help their child choose books which they deem appropriate, a public library (be it school or not) should have everything available they can. Of course, they’re going to pick books their patrons want to read- I’ve noticed my public library has a very limited selection of books about nature and wildlife- one of my favorite subjects, but I guess it’s not popular with other readers here.

    But I digress. I really love Temple Grandin’s books. I don’t think I’ve read the one you mentioned, I’ll have to look for it.

  4. Teresa says:

    Literary Omnivore: I agree that it’s more important for elementary school libraries to consider age appropriateness. As kids get older, there should be fewer limits on what’s made available. And I would certainly consider Nineteen Minutes acceptable for high school students (even though I’m not a fan).

    Claire: Yes, librarians and teachers should be generally trusted, but I do think there should be mechanisms in place for people to raise questions and concerns, just in case. I just finished Summertime today and LOVED it. I get what you say about it not being enjoyable, but it is impressive.

    Jeane: I’m agreement with you about public libraries, but elementary school libraries are a different matter. Then again, I doubt there are many elementary librarians getting age inappropriate books.

  5. ChristinaO says:

    Thanks so much for the link! I saw so many bloggers condemning the WSJ piece and was so bothered by the hypocracy of what Banned Books Week is and here were all these people saying that a different opinion and view-point was wrong. It was a tough post to write because my thoughts were all over – luckily it’s spurred a lot of conversation and other bloggers and their commentors (like yourself) have picked it up and continued the discussion.

  6. Teresa says:

    ChristinaO: You’re welcome. I really enjoyed your post! I do think the WSJ article missed some important points, as Colleen explained quite well, but I also think that part of free speech is the freedom to object.

  7. Jenny says:

    The thing that is interesting to me about challenging books is that everyone does it. I tend to think of it as a conservative phenomenon, but liberals do it just as often if they perceive their values to be in danger. To Kill a Mockingbird is regularly challenged (not to be pulled from library shelves — as you say, that’s rare — but to be pulled from school curricula) because it has “negative images of African-Americans.” Um. Maybe missing the bigger picture of what the book has to say?

    I agree that we have not just the right, but the duty to question what we read. And there’s a big difference between selecting books for purchase out of a limited budget and pulling books that are already on the shelves. It’s a complex issue. But I’m not ready for vocal minorities (of whatever political stripe) to determine what everyone else gets to read.

  8. rebeccareid says:

    Great issues! And I too appreciated Christina’s response to the WSJ article because I don’t think it was ALL wrong. I feel like I’m agreeing with everyone right now so maybe I shouldn’t try to write a comment at this time of the night. Yeay for banned books week! Let’s all be smart in having a dialog with our communities.

  9. Teresa says:

    Jenny: Yes, it’s not just conservatives, and liberals can be every bit as irrational. I’m with you that I don’t want others dictating everyone else’s reading. If they want to start a conversation, that’s great. Let’s converse! The trouble is that conversation is too rarely the aim.

    Rebecca: There was plenty to dislike about the WSJ article, but he raised some good points too–and he certainly launched some good conversation.

  10. Mae says:

    I would like to see your set of the Bronte sisters collection! :-) I’m in the process of collecting them all too. I think I’m just missing Agnes Grey but mine are regular Penguins.

  11. Teresa says:

    Mae: They are lovely. If I ever get around to reading them, maybe I’ll post some pictures of the illustrations.

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