We’re Number 1! In Banning Books

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This is Banned Books Week, and the news is dispiriting — especially here in Texas, the nation’s leader in banning books. That is clearly not something of which we should be proud. PEN America, which keeps track of such things, has been defending free expression and the unfettered exchange of ideas for 100 years. In today’s climate, they have their work cut out for them.

The non-profit organization, whose members over the past century include many of the nation’s finest writers, both in fiction and nonfiction, just released its annual report on book bans in schools. From July 2021 to June 2022, it counted 2,532 books being banned, affecting 1,648 book titles. (Some titles were banned by more than one school.) The bans occurred in 138 school districts in 32 states, affecting a combined enrollment of nearly 4 million students. The vast majority of efforts to ban books were led by politicians seeking a way to mobilize their base.

In Texas, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, led the effort, according to an exhaustive analysis published by the Houston Chronicle. Krause compiled (or had someone compile, not sure which) a list of about 850 titles that he wanted school districts to check and sent out a letter. Most of the books featured “LGBTQ+ characters and people of color in main character roles, as well as mentions of racism, the Holocaust, sexual violence, sexuality and abortion,” the Chronicle reported.

His letter, which bore no legal weight, resulted in more than two-thirds of the title reviews conducted in Texas during the 2021-2022 school year. As a result, the Chronicle reported 801 books were banned by 22 school districts.

A couple observations. In today’s world, with just about any type of information available with a swipe on a smart phone, it is ludicrous to think this type of censorship works.  Parents certainly have the right to monitor what their children read, whether it is in a book or on a phone. School libraries should not be put in the position of making censorship decisions based on pressure from outside groups on any side of the political spectrum. Rather, they should adhere to best-practice guidelines for book challenges outlined by the American Library Association, and the National Coalition Against Censorship, as PEN points out. The PEN reports that 96% of the 2,532 books listed in its Index of School Book Bans were enacted without following ALA  or NCAC standards.

Second, censorship attempts rarely end. Witness the attempts in Texas to ban teaching of critical race theory — which is not taught in Texas public schools anyway — or to ban teachers from freely teaching topics considered socially or politically controversial, such as racism. Again, these efforts are attempts by politicians to energize their base. The surest way to generate interest in a book, especially when it comes to young adults, is to ban it from school libraries. Bookstores and Amazon are the beneficiaries of such ill-considered efforts.


            In 1971, when I was a student at Longview High School, the school library pulled Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and all of Black writer James Baldwin’s books from the shelves, deeming them obscene. That provided the impetus for a couple of friends and me to produce an underground newspaper that consisted of four typewritten pages. We editorialized in high-school dudgeon about the books being banned. I went out, as memory serves (increasingly faulty, admittedly) and bought paperback copies of Catcher in the Rye and Fire on the Mountain, by Baldwin, from the Golden Hour Bookstore, then on High Street. That store became Barron’s and an East Texas fixture.

As recounted before, our newspaper, The Mirror, prompted Principal T.G. Field to expel me and a fellow collaborator from school. The American Civil Liberties Union found us a lawyer who represented us for free. Soon, thanks to U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice, we were back in school. Ultimately the case was settled after being linked to a similar case involving a newspaper produced and distributed off-campus, as ours was. After four issues, we stopped publishing because it was too expensive to maintain on our meager part-time work wages. The school district could have saved themselves some time, trouble and adverse publicity by just waiting us out. I believe the books were quietly put back on the shelves of the high school library. I am still a member of the ACLU.

In the half-century since, I have watched these efforts to ban books come and go. I hope the latest wave is just a fad as well. It is a shame when politicians like Krause, and other activists, try to decide what books others can read — titles they almost certainly have never read.


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