Banned Books Week in the 21st century

banned_books2Get out your party hats and reading lights. If it’s the last week of September, it’s Banned Books Week. This is the annual awareness campaign that draws attention to censorship. From the American Library Association:

Intellectual freedom–the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular–provides the foundation for Banned Books Week. BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them.

I mean, this could not be less controversial. Or at least I hope it couldn’t be. But there are a few things that are interesting about the coverage of the event, which is cosponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Let’s look at Time‘s coverage. The headline, which I would like you to keep in mind, is:

Censorship in Modern Times

How modern? Well, the first book on the list is Candide, published in 1759. Others include, well, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984. You get the idea. (Isn’t it interesting that these lists of banned books are always sugar-sweet like this? It’s not like you ever see someone wearing one of those “I Read Banned Books” t-shirts illustrated with the book jackets of the Turner Diaries or Mein Kampf or whatever).

Anyway, when I think of pressing issues of censorship, I think of Mark Twain. Don’t you? When I think of the plight of authors who express unpopular ideas, I think of J.K. Rowling and her undervalued Harry Potter series (also on the list because a small group of parents in Maine once publicly attacked their copies of the book with scissors). I mean, I’m sure we all know how difficult it is to get one’s hands on Harry Potter books. They’re practically impossible to find.

But I should give Time a break. It’s not like there’s anything more newsworthy or current for Time to report than U.S. Customs seizing Harvard-bound copies of Candide in . . . 1930.

Unless you think censorship happening this year is more timely.

Call me crazy, but maybe during Banned Books Week we should be looking at the story of how Yale University censored Jytte Klausen’s book “The Cartoons That Shook the World”:

Yale University has removed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from an upcoming book about how they caused outrage across the Muslim world, drawing criticism from prominent alumni and a national group of university professors.

Yale cited fears of violence.

Seriously, what is more threatening — a handful of Maine yahoos and their scissors? Or a major university self-censoring an academic book over fears of widespread violence? What’s more troublesome for Time — the fact that some people tried to keep coarse language away from juveniles (that’s what most of these “censorship” claims are about — people attempting to limit juvenile exposure to bomb-making cookbooks, etc.) or that publishing houses are getting firebombed when they issue books that some Muslims don’t like?

That’s what happened at the home of Martin Rynja, owner of Gibson Square publishing house. That outfit dared release The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’ historical novel about the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride Aisha. And what about Random House? That American publisher had inked a two-book, $100,000 deal with Jones. But, fearing “acts of violence by a small, radical segment,” abandoned its publishing plans.

But for Time magazine, the latest target of Muslim violence that it noticed was, I kid you not, The Satanic Verses. That was published during the Reagan Administration.

And for good measure, let’s just note the way Time began it’s special package on banned books:

The tradition began as a nod to how far society has come since 1557, when Pope Paul IV first established The Index of Prohibited Books to protect Catholics from controversial ideas. Pope Paul VI would abolish it 409 years later, although attempts at censorship still remain.

Yes, because when I think of religiously motivated suppression of “controversial” ideas, I think of Pope Paul IV before I think of, say, the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy that led to riots resulting in more than 100 deaths and the attacks on Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Don’t you?

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  • Edgar LeJeune

    “Yale University has removed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from an upcoming book about how they caused outrage across the Muslim world, drawing criticism from prominent alumni and a national group of university professors.

    Yale cited fears of violence.”

    A perfect demonstration of the hypocrisy of BBW. Such secular feast days make a big thing of RC banning books centuries ago and then do the same thing. The media sees no parallel! Let’s talk about blind guides.

  • Hans-Georg Lundahl

    1557, when Pope Paul IV first established The Index of Prohibited Books to protect Catholics from controversial ideas

    Controversial? Make that heretic. Oh, but that made these ideas controversial?

    Not really all of them. How controversial is it to find a book banned because Three Musceteers contains and praises duels?

    And, furthermore, there were lots of books that raised real controversies, but that were not herretical but Catholic. Like St Francis of Sales Defense of the Sign of the Cross, which was certainly banned by Genevan “authorities” (ironically he was the real religious authority of Geneva, since its bishop: he visited his episcopal city twice, entering under disguise).

  • Davis

    Of course, only one of your parade of Muslim horribles actually took place in the U.S.–Yale making pre-publication decisions–which really doesn’t have the same First Amendment threat as busybuddies trying to cut up Harry Potter or incidents all over the U.S. where people try to have books removed (or just remove the books themselves) because they don’t like the content.

    The ALA is focusing on a different historical problem and its effect on libraries, which is what Time was reporting on. That is isn’t compatible with the conservative meme of the month involving the Muslim menace (mostly in Europe) doesn’t mean it was a flawed story.

  • Bob Smietana


    You lost me there. Trying to burn an author’s house down or canceling publication because of the fear of violence isn’t a threat to the First Amendment? Mollie’s pointing out that Time and the ALA are missing current cases of censorship by violence. Looks like the problem of banned books is evolving– or devolving.

  • Mollie


    I’m confused, too. First off, Yale took place in the States as did Random House reneging on publishing The Jewel of Medina. And while none of the 100 deaths or arson incidents (wrt the cartoons) took place here, it’s not like the Washington Post published images of the cartoons.

    Are you honestly saying that four busybodies in Maine are a worse threat than these things? Really? You’re on board with Time highlighting the religious censorship threats of the 16th century and not the ones going on today?

  • Dave

    Mollie, I don’t get your exact point. Are you saying that BBW should not be done, or that it should be done better?

  • Stephen A.

    I’ve always found this “banned book week” stuff – at least in modern times – to be a bit of puffery and bluster.

    Aside from the PC-motivated attempts to ban anything that happens to offend ONE religious group (i.e. Muslims – and this is overcompensated by a strange zealousness to PROMOTE books that trash Christianity) I find very little “banning” going on.

    Certainly, fundamentalists overreact and want anything with the word ‘witch’ in it kept from society’s eyes. I think many will concede that.

    But modern book banning is always made to seem more prevalent when one goes into it (as the organizers do) saying “All books are appropriate for ALL ages, at all times.” And if this proposition is “challenged” by a concerned mother who doesn’t want their 8-year-old exposed to graphic depictions of sex or explicit drug-taking, then that’s considered “banning.” Please.

    The media need to “challenge” the actual nature of these so-called banning events. Lumping these into legitimate historical book burnings or by an overzealous customs official in the ’30s is grossly misleading, and misguided.

  • Suzanne

    The most commonly challenged book of the last three years, according to the ALA Web site, is a children’s book called “And Tango Makes Three,” which featured no drugs and no sex — just the true story of two male penguins who set up housekeeping together at the Central Park Zoo (a great book BTW).

    While I do agree that the censorship of anti-Muslim books is serious and should be discussed in this context, I don’t minimize any attempt to have others decide what books should be available to me and my children in our public library.

    Lobbying to remove “His Dark Materials” from the library because it offends one’s religious beliefs is obviously less violent than threatening to firebomb a building, but both actions are driven by the same motivation.

    I think there’s room for stories to examine all of these instances.

  • Davis

    Are you honestly saying that four busybodies in Maine are a worse threat than these things? Really? You’re on board with Time highlighting the religious censorship threats of the 16th century and not the ones going on today?

    I’m saying it’s apples and oranges. Librarians focus on one kind of threat, you are focused on the other. Time, dovetailing on the ALA week, focused on the Librarians concern, not your concerns.

    Random House did decide not to publish the Jewel of Medina, a book so badly written that even the PEN group failed to run to her defense. Yes, it’s a concern that publishers make the business decision not to publish a book out of fear of economic boycott or violence (or lack of a market). But that is different from books already published that are then challenged at local libraries and schools.

    In the U.S., busybodies scattered across the U.S. attempting to get Harry Potter or Heather Has Two Mommies pulled from public libraries because they are offended by a book they haven’t read is a concern, despite what the Wall Street Journal and others in the conservative chattering classes may think. And that’s what Time was writing about.

  • Stephen A.

    Suzanne, seriously? People expressing concern about a book is not the same a firebombing, even if their concern is based on religious viewpoints shared by only a small minority.

    A children’s book about two male penguins “setting up house” is arguably (some say obviously) propaganda. The place of homosexuality in our society is a valuable and important discussion we should all be having, and it’s legitimate to air both sides of the issue, but when one side places books in the libraries, and also in the classroom, some argue that this is forcing the “correct” answer onto kids and short-circuiting that discussion in a heavy-handed way.

    Then again, when and if society decides gay marriage and gay sexuality is totally equal to heterosexuality, than BOTH will be taught to children. Obviously, we’re not at that point yet.

  • Stephen A.

    Davis, the LEFT doesn’t have a “chattering class,” too, does it (NYT, WashPost, LATimes, ABCNBCCBS, MSNBC, CNN, etc.)?

  • Suzanne


    The opponents of these books weren’t just expressing concern about them, they wanted them removed. Weren’t willing to blow things up to make it happen, but they still didn’t want others to read them.

    And have you actually read “Tango”? I was midway into reading the book to my children when I even realized what it was about. And the “propaganda” went right over my kids’ heads. They accepted the fact that two male penguins decided to build a nest together with no more unusual interest than they showed in the fact that a bear and a pig and tiger were all friends together in the Hundred Acre Woods.

    The authors didn’t argue that this was the “correct” arrangement. Just that it was.

  • Davis

    The left definitely has a chattering class. But this particular dispute–banned books and censorship at Yale because of Muslims–has its genesis in the conservative chattering class.

  • Stephen A.

    Suzanne, the fact that your kids accepted this as normal without questioning it was the very reason to get the books into young children’s hands. They accept far easier than adults. That’s why some view it as inappropriate, propagandizing, and short-circuiting the discussion. Shaping young minds is a great way to “win” long-term.

  • Suzanne

    And because you believe that — that it is inappropriate to shape children’s minds with facts (based on a true story, remember?) — no other children should be exposed to this book? Regardless of their parents’ views about homosexuality?

    This is the story that the media should tell. Put just that question to those who would censor. “Why should the rest of us not have access to this book in a public library, just because you don’t like it?”

  • tmatt

    First let me state that my wife is a public librarian. Hurrah.

    Now, here is my question. Banned is not the right word and neither is censored. Words matter. Books that cause controversy won’t fit on a t-shirt, or books that cause debates among taxpayers and library users (think thousands and thousands of homeschool families) won’t fit on the shirt either.

    But I have another question: What about the books that public libraries either do not buy or that the libraries buy in very small numbers when the demand is much higher?

    Part of the problem here is that public library supporters tend to be either very liberal (in several senses of the word, including old fashioned First Amendment liberalism) or very culturally conservative (think older readers and those throngs of homeschool folks). This creates tensions.

    Hurrah for tensions. BUY MORE BOOKS. Of all kinds. Even by evangelical and Catholic writers.

  • Bob Smietana


    The latest case of book banning in the Time report is from 2001. So where’s the news? Mollie makes a good point–the news is censorship by threat of violence. That’s why Random House says it canceled the book–out of fear for the safety of the author and its employee. Since someone set the author’s house on fire, seems like their fears had some validity. There’s a story in that.

  • Stephen A.

    Bear in mind also, Suzanne, that my beef, like some of these parents, is with age-appropriateness. A frank and honest book about gay sexuality may be totally appropriate for high school students (though for some parents, it’s still not) while not so for pre-teens and toddlers.

    Note also that I’m being careful to not advocate for either side here, NOR SHOULD REPORTERS. Just stating the positions on both sides and why it’s legitimate to debate the use of this group’s word “banned.”

    Personally, I’m with Terry, I think adults should have access to ALL books and read voraciously. But one side (be they pro-gay marriage or pro-Creationist) shouldn’t use the schools to sneak in “unsettled” issues to try to indoctrinate young minds without parental involvement.

  • Jerry

    The comment about “Tango” reminds me of the old controversy about the Peter, Paul & Mary song: Puff the Magic Dragon. I don’t know the book so it might or might not be what some are concerned about. The intend of the author versus what the reader believes the story is about is one consideration.

    And obviously what people consider important is subjective as the posts here show.

    Side comment to Stephen A: Yes both sides of the political spectrum have chattering classes but I would in no way consider CNN on the left because entertainers like Lou Dobbs are given airtime to rant and rave.

    I find it sad that the tradition of real news broadcasters that Walter Cronkite exemplified is close to dead.

  • Stephen A.

    Jerry: Aside from that one example, CNN has an overwhelming liberal bias on political and social issues. It’s really not even disguised when we see a panel of 3 liberals and 1 lapsed or liberal Republican posing as “balance.” It’s not even that fabled “corporate” bias liberals like to say exists. It’s pure bias.

    But I will say that I find Olbermann, Dobbs, Beck and O’Reilly all equally an affront to the Cronkite tradition of “straight news” and I wish his style would come back. Of course these are all entertainers, not news-readers, though I admit most people fail to make that distinction.

  • Davis

    “There’s a story in that.”

    Maybe. Arguably, it’s been told quite a bit. Jones got a ton of publicity when her book was released–and it was released–all over the mainstream press. The Mohammed cartoon story has been over and over and over again.

    But the question is does that story need to replace THIS story about an apple instead of an orange?

    It’s also curious that the “muslims ban books through violence threats” isn’t a story that GetReligion would want to discourage or at least have it presented in a more balanced, contextual way. Religious traditionalists being tarred with a media stereotype is usually GetReligion fodder, except, I guess, when it involves Muslims.

  • Suzanne

    I think the terminology shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. If pressure leads a librarian to remove a book from the shelf, then a book has been “banned.”

    Whether you think that pressure was legitimate or not doesn’t change the fact that it was banned.

    If people want a book taken off the shelves and it isn’t, then a book has been “challenged,” to use the ALA’s term, and it seems like a reasonable term to use.

    In between, you might “restrict” a book, as in requiring an adult’s permission for a child to check it out. At my first paper (20 years ago) I wrote about a “restricted room” that contained a small number of books that kids weren’t allowed to browse without their parents. Most were children’s books about reproduction (“The Birth of Sunset’s Kittens” stands out in my memory for some reason).

  • Mollie


    I question your news sense. I also question whether you’re being serious or just trying to make liberals look bad through your sloppy argumentation.

    Anyway, in the news business, we tend to value, well, news.

    So something that happened in the 1930s has less news value than something that happened today.

    To say that the story of Muslim censorship has been told sufficiently is laughable. It gets news, sure, but I really don’t think it’s been handled as much as, say, something that happened in the Vatican five centuries ago.

    And why in the world would GetReligion want to DISCOURAGE a story about Muslim threats of violence over books? Our mission here is to encourage GOOD reporting, not to hide news. And we don’t care if the news is about Quakers or Zoroastrians — we just want it to be reported well. But we don’t think you should hide news about Muslim violence, obviously.

    I’m wondering, again, if you’re either serious or arguing in good faith. Because your arguments today are just that weak.

  • Stephen A.

    Restricting a book to a certain age group isn’t “banning” it under any circumstances, so yes, Suzanne, that’s a great in-between measure. But it’s also what that librarian group is calling “banning” so they do indeed need a lesson in terminology.

  • Davis

    I also question whether you’re being serious or just trying to make liberals look bad through your sloppy argumentation.

    Ad hominems are always classy. Congratulations on that.

    I think the book “banning” story is an interesting one. I think the Muslim violence threat leads to “censorship” story is an interesting one. I’m just not sure one needs to replace the other, which is what you appear to be arguing.

    Let’s tell the story of Maine busybodies–even if it makes Christian conservatives look bad–and let’s tell the story of publishers who fear offending Muslims. But they are two different stories. Let’s not get hijacked by the conservative chattering class that has decided book banning isn’t a big deal–because conservatives are the primary banners–and the real issue is that Yale is removing some pictures out of a book.

    Just because Time wrote story (A) and you think story (B) is more important doesn’t make story (A) wrong or flawed; it just isn’t a story you consider news or is on your agenda. Others disagree. That’s still allowed, I think.

  • tmatt


    Her agenda? MZ’s agenda is that news reports about censorship should focus on (a) news and (b) censorship or something stunningly close to it.

    And your agenda?

  • Davis

    BTW, this is a year old package at Time (dated Sept. 26, 2008) and says it is “presents some of the most challenged books of all time.” Looks like they dug it out of their archive. So it’s not a story about book banning in 2009, but instead a package about the history of book banning in the U.S.

  • Bill

    Does refusing to buy a book with public funds really amount to banning or censorship? Libraries have limited budgets and must choose from a large universe of books. They have standards by which they choose. Is it censorship not to buy, say, “Little Black Sambo” because it is offensive to a large percentage of the public? (Both liberal and conservative.)

    There were cries of censorship when conservative taxpayers objected to public funding of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos and Anthony Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” There was no censorship. Any gallery was free to exhibit the photos with private support. The objection was to funding the exhibition with tax dollars.

    As for the Maine busybodies, Mollie is correct: in a country of 300,000,000, there will always be some group, somewhere incensed by something. A few Down Easters with scissors are insignificant.

  • Dave

    The usual take-home story about Banned Books Week is that liberal librarians do it because most efforts to ban or curtail books arise from grassroots conservatives, and conservative organizations dump on BBW for the same reason. Mollie made an effort to criticize this year’s BBW without arousing that meme. I would say she succeeded in part. …

  • Bob Smietana


    You’re right – looks like Time repackaged old content. Which is odd, because Banned Books Week website has some really interesting info on it that might make a good story or at least some good online content–with an interactive map and other features.

    Still Mollie has a good point from a newsworthy perspective. Most of these banned book incidents are parents telling a school or public library “This book sucks” or “This offends me” (my paraphrase). And libraries and schools have policies and procedures to deal with those complaints.

    But canceling books because someone might burn down the author’s house, or rioting in response to cartoons? There’s no policy that can deal with that. Which makes that a more interesting story — more relevant, more timely- that rehashing two year old content about banning Candide and Harry Potter.

    The violence leads to censorship story is more newsworthy because of the actions involved-not because of the faith group. If a Christian or Jewish or Hindu or atheist group held riots over a book– that’d be newsworthy as well.

    BTW, what is with the arguments that “Jones’ book stunk so it’s OK it was canceled” and “her house was set on fire but she got some good publicity, so don’t worry about it.” Yikes.

    Philip Pulman’s The Amber Spyglass was suckola and consider blasphemous (Yahweh is a senile impostor locked in a glass coffin) and for that no one tried to burn his house down. He got lots of nice awards for being so controversial.

  • David

    Just for the record, censorship is exclusively an action taken by the government. If a private concern suppresses something internally, it can’t really be called censorship.

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  • Davis

    Point of clarification: the author’s house wasn’t set on fire. Her publisher’s home/office in London was firebombed. It was covered widely at the time.

  • Dave

    David, feminists introduced a new meaning to “censorship” in the late 20th century to cover, eg, a studio’s refusal to make a movie of a script submitted by a woman. The definition has kind of been in the wind ever since.

    My preference is not to use it for the exercise of an internal decision to decline to publish something — that’s called “editing” — but to apply it to any third-party intervention between a willing publisher and a willing reader, whether that third party is the state, a pressure group or a mob.

  • tmatt


    But why redefine a word to say that?

    Why degrade the language?

    Just say what you have to say. So you oppose boycotts and petitions?

  • Davis

    I’m not sure he’s redefining it.

    Censorship is government action. When someone petitions a public library to pull “Heather Has Two Mommies” and it acquiesces, that’s much closer to censorship because now the government is restricting access to a book.

    A private publishing house deciding not to issue a book or leaving out pictures may be an affront to intellectual freedom, but it isn’t censorship.

    Words do matter.

  • Suzanne

    A question harking back to the original post: Let’s say that Time or some other publication wrote about BBW, touching on the usual stuff (Heather, Tango, Harry Potter, etc.) and then says, “And look at how terrorism is being used to censor books that are insulting to Islam.”

    Can you imagine the outcry? “How dare these liberal journalists compare me complaining about that heathen Heather book to those Muslim terrorists!”

    Is that what the OP is suggesting that the media should be doing? Or are we supposed to be ignoring Christian-motivated attempts to ban books in favor of the Islam-motivated variety?

  • Stephen A.

    Government restricts children’s access to alcohol, cigarettes and bans sexual activity between adults and children, based on societal values and what young people can handle, physically and emotionally. Restriction is not always a negative.

    Restricting a theme in a book to adults or to an age-appropriate audience is perhaps *technically* censorship, but a better word may be the archaic use of the word “discrimination” – in the judicious, wise and careful sense. That is, before it became synonymous with blind, unthinking prejudice.

    Again, if society has completely decided that gay marriage and gay parenting is a standard equal to straight marriage and parenting, “Heather” actually MUST be in the classrooms and in libraries. Clearly, though, we’re not there yet, if we ever will be, and reporters who approach the story with the idea that this issue is “settled” and that such restrictions are always wrong (or, conversely, always right) are inserting their own agenda into the story.

  • Suzanne

    Fair enough, but still doesn’t answer the question. What are we to with this story:

    a) Ignore it, because if anyone is restricting access to a book, they must be doing it for a good reason, right?

    b) Hey, look over there at the Islamists!

    c) Look at all the folks (of all stripes, religious beliefs, etc.) who think they know better than you do what you or your children should have access to.

    d) Your suggestions here.

  • Stephen A.

    Suzanne: I guess the real question is: Does anyone – or any group – have the right to raise objections about a book’s theme without them being labeled, ostracized and painted as book burners in the media?

    Raising concerns about access to children of a certain age isn’t banning, so “A” has validity.

    The Islamist issue is not a distraction, it’s a bizarre hypocritical exercise in DoubleThink: “Okay to ban THESE books, but not any others.” Totally legitimate to call them out on this.

  • Jay

    BBW has always been about a political agenda, not about freedom of expression. In protecting a particular type of speech, it’s more like the ACLU — an activist effort aligned with a particular ideology. But then that’s the ideology of the American Library Association, too.

    A real BBW would be more like Nat Hentoff (or the ACLU that helped Nazis march in Skokie), consistently fighting against all forms of bans.

  • Dave

    Terry, I favor the word “censorship” when applied to the kind of private action I referenced because it has the same effect on the reader and the publisher — a powerful third-party barrier between consenting participants in the free market of ideas. YMMV.

    I’m not sure where you gathered that I’m against boycotts and petitions. I’m quite selective, but I have particiapted in boycotts of California grapes and Florida citrus for what I regarded as good political reasons. I withhold my signature from petitions I agree with when the circulator is ill-informed or impolite, but I regard petitions as a valid exercise of poltical will.

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  • michael


    You ask what we are to do with this story, but you leave out option (e), to treat is as what it is: a non-story about a non-event in which a non-existent threat is drudged up in order to advance a distinct political ideology masquerading as a neutral defense of freedom.

  • Suzanne

    “e), to treat is as what it is: a non-story about a non-event in which a non-existent threat is drudged up in order to advance a distinct political ideology masquerading as a neutral defense of freedom.”

    Oh, right — you mean like See You at the Pole Day. ;)