Monday, September 29, 2014

Lawrence Gooley: The Abysmal Notion of Banning Books

BBW14_CoverArt_op1 CRBanned Books Week, which ended a few days ago, is an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association and a number of other organizations representing authors, publishers, journalists, teachers, and anti-censorship sentiments. While pondering the mindset that would limit what others can read, it occurred to me that some of my own books, and many others tied to the Adirondack region, have the potential to be challenged by those who do such things. Seems ludicrous, but it’s true.

The tendency is to dismiss book-banners as nutjobs or fanatics, but here’s the truth: for school libraries and public libraries, topping the list of ban seekers are parents, patrons, administrators, board members, teachers, and pressure groups, in that order.

The books I’ve written include history, humor, and achievements by area citizens, but some also address murder, rape, violence, homosexuality, religious viewpoints, bestiality, racism, and drugs, which all happen to be among the top-ten reasons for books being challenged. If a challenge is successful, the offending book is banned. Such bans can apply to anything from individual libraries to entire states, often requiring court action to stop the insanity.

Many other books of Adirondack relevance, particularly novels, contain materials—sex, ghosts, vampires, the occult—considered objectionable by some people. Occult subject matter alone led to a ban attempt in America every two weeks from 2000 to 2009.

The solution is available to all free and independent people: personal censorship. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. The problem is that each complainant believes they are right, and what’s right for them is right for everyone. If that means banning books, then so be it.

Concerns about the possible banning of books may seem silly, but not so much in light of what has been targeted even recently. Sexually explicit materials and offensive language are the two primary reasons for book challenges. For those grounds and others, the following titles have been in the top-ten books challenged in at least one year from 2001 to 2013.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953)

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1952)

Moby Dick, Herman Melville (1851)

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane (1895)

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)

Don’t like one of those books, or any other book, for your own reasons? Read it, don’t read it, remain quiet, scream about how evil it is, write letters to the editor … whatever you wish. It’s a right we all enjoy to some extent: freedom of speech.

The problem is taking one’s preferences and foisting them upon everyone else. By publicly criticizing a book for your own reasons, you have spoken. But banning a book denies all other citizens the same opportunity that you enjoyed. A ban eliminates everyone’s freedom to speak, and supplants it with your own unilateral decision. Better we judge for ourselves.

In most cases, it defies all logic for an American to seek censorship. We are, after all, guaranteed personal independence to the safest degree possible. Ban-seekers need to explain how we are harmed by the presence and availability of “those” books … or, in fact, any books.

My childhood was dominated by interests in sports and books. As a precocious reader, I read my way through the local library’s children’s section and craved more. The librarian understood, and thus allowed me to take out books from the adult shelves. At an age much younger than the average child, I read Fahrenheit 451, The Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick, and others on the list above. And like most kids who did the same, I can’t define in even one way how I was harmed.

One of my favorites back then was Animal Farm, which has appeared on many ban lists because of “communist ideas.” It remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, demonstrating how the powerless but self-righteous who eventually rise to power begin to exhibit the same behaviors of the rulers they once criticized—but the new rulers manage to rationalize those behaviors.

Speaking to communism and censorship more than half a century ago, US Supreme Court Justice William Douglas made the following comments: “It is our attitude toward free thought and free expression that will determine our fate. There must be no limit on the range of temperate discussion, no limits on thought. No subject must be taboo. No censor must preside at our assemblies.… Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”

Many book challenges over the years have landed in the courts, resulting in some very eloquent commentary by judges. Here are two of my favorites.

While deciding a flag-burning case in 1989, the US Supreme Court defined that action as a version of speech, so the decision applied to books as well.

Wrote Justice William Brennan: “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable…. The First Amendment literally forbids the abridgment only of ‘speech,’ but we have long recognized that its protection does not end at the spoken or written word.”

In 1978, a poetry anthology was banned from a Chelsea, Massachusetts, library when a school committee deemed one of the entries “offensive” and “damaging.” US District Court Judge Joseph Tauro offered a stirring, articulate decision against censorship. (He’s the same judge who in 2010 ruled the one man-one woman clause of the Defense Of Marriage Act unconstitutional.)

“The library is ‘a mighty resource in the marketplace of ideas.’ There a student can literally explore the unknown, and discover areas of interest and thought not covered by the prescribed curriculum. The student who discovers the magic of the library is on the way to a life-long experience of self-education and enrichment. That student learns that a library is a place to test or expand upon ideas presented to him, in or out of the classroom. The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger from such exposure. The danger is mind control. The committee’s ban of the anthology Male and Female is enjoined.”

A place to test or expand upon ideas? Ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies? There is no danger from such exposure?

Judge Tauro for President!

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.


11 Responses

  1. A relative of mine worked in a district in CNY that was notorious for banning a lot of books. My relative said that basically what happened was that two old ladies were the only people to attend school board meetings and they made a stink over books they’d never read. There being no other voices consulted, therefore…

    We focus a lot about what happens (or doesn’t) in DC or Albany but what happens in our own towns often passes with little notice, even though we have far more power to effect change.

  2. Bruce Van Deuson says:

    Pushing for a book to be banned is akin to saying, “I’m a Christian, therefore everyone has to be Christian, so I’m not offended.” The so-called Defense of Marriage acts are falling like dominoes.

    I wonder how many bannings resulted in increased sales, when everyone else wanted to see what the furor was all about.

    • Tim Hubbard says:

      Bruce – I don’t know the answer to your question. I would hope we are smarter than the people telling us how to think. But honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if a banned book suffered (in sales) from the simple ignorance (meaning having not been read) that might keep someone from buying/reading a great book because someone else (with a very defined agenda) told them not to. We live in a country where political sheep follow aimlessly, so not surprised that some don’t read certain books simply because someone else told them it wasn’t a good idea. I was raised in the north country by parents who wanted me to be a free thinker. I am! I know what I want in this world and I am smart enough to figure it out for myself, thank you. I think you are too. It takes a little initiative to learn.

  3. Tim Hubbard says:

    Larry – Thanks, as usual, for your wonderful articles. They always deliver new knowledge, and profound views and perspectives. Of course, experience (read age) helps us develop this, but not all get wiser with age – you do! And you help me to…

  4. Paul J says:

    This is the standard liberal position toward book banning, but it really only concerns books that conservatives oppose. De facto book banning is done every day by teachers and librarians who say they oppose “book banning.” And it should be. Outside of libraries with specific research missions, few if any libraries today have The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on their shelves, nor should they. Nor do they have binders of “Penthouse.” And while libraries may have “The Bell Curve” on its shelves, few teachers would choose it as the primary text for a sociology class. These are decisions made every day, and no one thinks anything of them. Where conflicts arise is when conservatives feel that books more liberal librarians and teachers choose are inappropriate. In almost all cases I side with the teachers and librarians, but if we are to be honest rather than demagogic, the battle should be fought on a case-by-case basis, and not on principle.

    • John Warren says:

      There is a huge difference between a library deciding what it wants to keep in its collection or a teacher choosing one text over another and the proactive banning of books.

      • Paul J says:

        Let an elementary teacher choose “Little Black Sambo” as reader and see what the response is from the community.

        • Avon says:

          I agree with Paul’s initial comment. It’s not a pro-censorship comment! Larry’s response to it (below) is right on target.

          But I couldn’t disagree more with Paul’s rejoinder here. What the public thinks of a book should NOT be the justification for banning it (or not)! I’m against case by case censorship, if that means majority vote on each book.

          I lived in D.C. when the suburban Mark Twain High School banned “Huckleberry Finn” due to its use of the N-word. (Ostensibly, at least; it was also a conservative town anyway.) But how ironic for a school to betray its own name, not to mention its mission! “Little Black Sambo” is worth adding to the curriculum, if it’s relevant to a course on history, early-childhood education, or cultural trends … even though Paul is right that “the community” might blow its stack anyway.

          So I’m curious to know whether Maurice Sendak Elementary in the ultra-liberal Amherst, MA, will censor “In the Night Kitchen.” The book was OK for decades, but recent years have gotten weird. So many libraries are already obliterating the penis of the little boy from that one supposedly naughty page … we may end up with a neurotic penisphobic generation.

          Banning books is not only anti-liberty; it’s a bit sick!

          • Paul J says:


            Thanks for your response. I’m afraid this horse is on its last legs, but let me use your good points to try to make clear what I’m saying and why I’m saying it. You say rightly that “Little Black Sambo” could be included in a course when its relevant–history, early childhood education, cultural trends, etc. And I wholeheartedly agree. But what if an elementary teacher chooses it simply as the reader for a class in which children are primarily learning to read, without any discussion of its racism or historical importance? This is unthinkable now, but it once was common. The reason its no longer so used is because members of the community, people like me, protested. So I’m hesitant to tell others who protest a book not that they’re wrong about the book they’re protesting, but that protesting any book is wrong.

            Do I think school-boards should ban “Huckleberry Finn” of “In the Night Kitchen.” No. I teach “Huckleberry Finn” myself. But I think that those who want to should have the chance to speak their piece and then hear from educators why they believe the book in question should be taught.


  5. Larry says:

    Liberal or conservative has nothing to do with it. That’s the lazy answer that seems to surface with just about every difference of opinion today. Banning is wrong because it takes away the rights of others. Liberal, conservative, independent, green, whatever … it doesn’t matter.

    If a book is in a store or library, we all have the right to choose whether or not we read it. Banning it is not just banning a physical book—it’s the elimination of our right to choose. We all deserve that right equally.

    The Sambo argument doesn’t hold water. The issue is not what can be taught to others … it’s what anyone can read by personal choice.

    • Paul J says:


      No one that I’m aware of has asked that the books on these lists of “banned books” not be sold. They are asking that they not be taught in school classes or put on the shelves of libraries. This is why they are going to school boards. In almost all cases, I believe they are wrong. But I can’t say they are wrong in principle, because I think we all agree that there *are* books that shouldn’t be taught in classes or placed on the shelves of school libraries. If I want my child to read “Little Black Sambo” I can provide it to him. If I don’t want him to and he wants to, he can find it on his own. And this is as it should be for all books, even the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But the banned books on the list you refer to are books that parents have asked to be withdrawn from classrooms and school libraries. The fact that they are wrong about the books they’ve targeted doesn’t me that the principle itself is wrong.

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