Banning Books, Not Reading Them, is Still in Vogue

Greg Markley


In ninth grade we read “Slaughterhouse-Five.” That was in 1970 at a Catholic high school in New England. This Kurt Vonnegut book has faced censorship often, with its irreverence, sexual content, profanity and gay characters. My friends at the public high school were not assigned that book. We delighted in our Christian brothers honoring free speech more than high school principals did.

Now we find 53 years later that attempts to ban books are much more common; they are occurring beyond any rate recorded 20 years ago. The American Library Association reported that attempts were made to ban or restrict access to 1,651 different titles in 2022. That is the highest number of constraints since tracking began 20 years ago. The previous top was 1,597 books in 2021.

“It represents an escalation, and we’re truly fearful that at some point we will see a librarian arrested for providing constitutionally protected books on disfavored topics,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office Of Intellectual Freedom at the library association, told The New York Times. “They’re being threatened with prosecution, attacked on social media, harassed for simply doing their jobs by trying to meet the information needs of their communities.”

To me, this is the opposite of what happened with librarians after the USA Patriot Act passed Congress and was signed by President George W. Bush, weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Librarians heroically banded together to push adjustments in cases where libraries would be hindered in their work due to requirements on recording who signed out which book and why, etc.

Now what we see is librarians being harassed and badgered by people desiring to ban books. This difficult situation for librarians is dominated by conservatives, but there are progressives also who want certain books banned. Moms for Liberty, a conservative group aiming to remove books they say are not appropriate in public school libraries, they frame it as all about parental choice.

 For children under say age 13 or so, that is proper. But for older teens, all that’s necessary is to put the books at the reference desk, and they can check out a semi-banned book by showing an ID. If the parents object, they must be reminded that their child will be a young adult in perhaps five years. Then he or she can read anything they want at the library (except how to make a bomb, maybe).

In the NYT article “A Fast-Growing Network of Conservative Groups Is Fueling a Surge in Book Banning,” Elizabeth Harris and Alexandra Alter note that “In its 2021 ‘Porn in Schools Report’, Florida Citizens Alliance lists books they say contain ‘indecent and offensive material’ — such as ‘And Tango Makes Three,’ about two male penguins who adopt a baby penguin. The alliance has more than 250,000 people to flood politicians with letters.”

Last September, during Banned Books Week, a survey was taken of how teenagers feel about this issue, which touches them as much as anyone. Only using first names was allowed. Deborah, of Vanden High School, in Fairfield, California, came across as a real advocate for not banning books.

“Honestly, the efforts to remove books that expose race, gender and sexuality from schools and libraries are quite sad to me,” Deborah said. “I feel as if these important pages of knowledge are getting ripped out of our minds. This can be scary because without knowledge, we are destined to be blind.”

Sofia is a student at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She suggests restrictions based on one’s age. 

“First graders do not need to know some cruelty and harshness of the world quite yet but if a child has an interest in a more mature subject, they should be allowed to explore and research things,” she said. “Children of age 12 and up should have the right to learn any subject, to experience the real world one way or another and might as well let them be prepared.”

Finally, Haley from Julia Masterman School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, seeks a compromise in deciding what young people should read. 

“If this problem does come up, it would be good to have a voting system,” she said. “The school staff and children should vote if they should still read the book or put it in a young adults section for teens. Some may be inappropriate for young kids, but it does not mean we should just throw all those books away.”

In the introduction of this piece, I recalled my Catholic teachers at the academy I graduated from in 1975. They were conservative on “social issues” in following Saint John Baptist de La Salle, patron saint of teachers. Yet many took liberal, open-minded approaches in teaching. We were allowed to read some adult stuff, or occasionally rough stuff, as part of a progressive curriculum. So, I say “Let there be peace on earth,” and let it begin with a variety of books.

Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a master’s in education from AUM anda master’s in historyfrom Auburn University. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to The Observer since 2011. He writes on politics, education and books.


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