Challenges and banned books: How to handle books that offend

My friend Rose reminded me the other day that Banned Books Week is coming soon (Sept. 26 – Oct. 3). I’m glad she did because it always sneaks up on me, which is another way of saying I usually forget to put it in my Google Calendar, and if I don’t put something in there, I have no chance of remembering it later. But I also got a reminder from an article in the New York Times yesterday:

By By Alison Leigh Cowan
Published: August 19, 2009
Librarians are trained to listen politely but stand firm when patrons object to the presence of a book or other item on a library shelf. But patrons who persist are entitled to file a challenge.

Give it a read, especially if you’re not a librarian. Those of us in the field all have a pretty good understanding of how challenges work, and what goes on in libraries, and what methods we all use to try to circumvent one of these situations turning ugly, but it occurs to me that many library users and readers in general may not. As a rule, we try our best. There’s no black and white to this issue, and a lot of shades of gray. Sometimes it seems obvious; of course wanting a book out of the library or off the shelves is always wrong, right? But what if it’s a book that’s racially offensive? Do we still defend that book with the same fervor, when its presence may offend those we normally would champion? It’s not a simple situation, and the librarians dealing with challenges, those people working on the front lines, they get the brunt of it. They may be under pressure or misguided, but they’re in there trying, at least.

Also the Times article made me think about Banned Books Week in a way that I never have before. Maybe it’s not an entirely bad thing that books get challenged, not so long as there are voices ready to defend them. Maybe Banned Books Week doesn’t have to be about the evils of censorship, or attempted censorship. Maybe on some level, we can make it be about celebrating the process. When a book is challenged and people stand up to decry its existence, I cringe; but when someone else stands up to defend that book, often with great passion, I can’t help but feel sort of patriotic, in a way. It’s sort of great that here in the U.S. we live in a time and place where that kind of outcry and defense can go on, and the people of a community, a state, a country can discuss what they believe to be right and wrong, democratically. Democracy isn’t easy, after all; as Aaron Sorkin once said, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve got to want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

Personally I’m willing to work for it. Would I want to live in a world where nothing controversial ever got published, where no one questioned anything? No. Because I think if they shoot at you, you must be doing something right. So maybe this year, for Banned Books Week, I’ll be celebrating the right of every crazy person who wants Harry Potter off the school library shelves because it advocates sorcery (I always wonder, what would be so bad about that, anyhow? sorcery seems like it would be rather useful), and each individual who is horrified at the mere existence of Heather Has Two Mommies, since it’s clearly recruiting material for the Gay Agenda that threatens to put an end to heterosexualism (look, I can’t get my guy friends to stop being attracted to girls with big breasts and lousy personalities… you think a book’s going to magically make someone attracted to a different gender?). Because when I hear them decry those books at the top of their lungs, what I’ll really be thinking is: oh yeah? Well, then we must be doing something right.