The Spread of Banning Books

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Efforts to ban books in the US in recent years have grown from relatively isolated fights to a broader effort focused on works on sexual and racial identity. Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth Harris cover the publishing industry. I talked to them about what’s behind this trend.

Claire: How did the attempts to ban books become so widespread?

Alexandra: We’ve seen this go from a school or community problem to a really polarizing political problem. In the past, parents may have heard about a book because their child took a copy home; now complaints on social media about inappropriate material are going viral, leading to more complaints in schools and libraries across the country.

Elected officials are also making the ban on books another wedge-shaped problem in the culture wars. Last fall, a Republican representative in Texas compiled a list of 850 books he said were inappropriate material in schools, including books on sexuality, racism and American history. In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin campaigned on the issue, stating that parents, not schools, should control what their children read. Democrats have also seized upon the issue through congressional hearings on increasing book bans.

And sometimes the disputes have turned into something more menacing. The Proud Boys, the far-right group with a history of street fighting, showed up at a drag queen-hosted family story hour at a library in San Lorenzo, California.

Why do parents and conservatives want these bans?

Alexandra: For some parents, it’s about preventing kids from reading certain things. Others want to introduce certain topics – such as LGBT rights or race – to their children themselves.

Many of the people I’ve spoken to say they don’t think the bans they want are racist or bigoted. They say the books contain specific content that they feel is not appropriate for children, and they sometimes refer to explicit passages. But librarians we speak to say that the most challenging books in the entire country are actually all about black or brown or LGBT characters.

In Texas, residents have sued a library after a library official pulled books from shelves based on a list from an elected official. They weren’t all children’s books; the list included Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” and “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi.

It’s hard to separate the ban wave from other conservative attempts to use the government to restrict speech, including what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. Those are all movements that have overlapped and sparked debates about book bans.

Elizabeth: The banning of books is currently part of a broader political context, of extreme polarization, of heightened political tensions and the amplification of certain messages by the types of media – social or other – that people consume.

Have you noticed a prohibition effort?

Elizabeth: In Virginia Beach, a local politician sued Barnes & Noble over two books, “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe, and “A Court of Mist and Fury,” a fantasy novel. This legislature wants Barnes & Noble to stop selling these titles to minors. The suit will probably fail. But it’s an escalation: The problem went from people who thought their children shouldn’t read certain books, to trying to stop other people’s children from reading certain books.

I understand why some of the fights about reading in school are so intense: Teachers, by definition, make choices about which books kids will and won’t read, and parents may not always agree. The attempts to get books out of libraries feel different, yes?

Elizabeth: When people try to push a book out of the library, they make a decision for everyone, that no one has access to a particular book. But librarians are trained to present different points of view. For them, it is a matter of professional ethics to ensure that the point of view of one person or one group does not dictate what everyone else reads.

Elizabeth: Banning books can also harm children who identify with storylines in books that are banned in their community. The question for the child becomes, “What’s wrong with me?”

How do librarians react?

Alexandra: It’s heartbreaking for them. Librarians say they got into this field because they love to read and talk to people about books. Some have quit their jobs; some have been fired for refusing to remove books. Others quit after falling victim to a barrage of social media insults.

A librarian in Texas quit after 18 years because she was harassed online. She moved out of state and took a job in engineering.

What’s next?

Elizabeth: The movement won’t go away as long as the midterms are ahead of us. And the school year is kicking off just as election season is really heating up, so both can add fuel to this fire.

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