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Challenge What You Know About Banned Books Week

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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As we approach the end of this year’s Banned Books Week, we should stand in awe of the number of causes to which it has been harnessed. To some, this is the moment to highlight the lack of diversity in our libraries and on school reading lists. To others, it’s the occasion for a sharp warning about the dangers of the religious right. And, of course, no conversation about anything remotely concerning would be complete if we failed to mention how electing Donald Trump president would make it worse.

But let’s put our agendas aside. Banned Books Week should be first and foremost a celebration of books for their own sake -- and an appreciation of the risks that come from trying to build walls around the world of ideas. It’s also a time to ponder whether we ourselves might be the principal warriors in the never-ending battle to limit the range of acceptable thought.

Let’s start with the books themselves. Although there are certainly some who would like to wish various books out of existence, most “bannings” are efforts to remove particular volumes not from libraries but from reading lists. Yes, there are demands that librarians restrict the access of children to particular books, but the biggest battles are over curriculum.

Much writing on the subject assumes in a casual way that curriculum regulation is a project mostly of the right, but that trope is mistaken. To take only the most obvious example, the effort to ban “Huckleberry Finn” has been led by black parents and educators, who worry that the language and the characterization will cause their children discomfort.  According to data gathered by the American Library Association, most challenges to books come from parents, and the most common parental objection is on the ground of sexually explicit or otherwise offensive language.

We should not assume, moreover, that this sentiment exists only in small, isolated pockets of the nation. According to a 2015 Harris survey, 71 percent of respondents (including 60 percent of Democrats) think that librarians should keep age-inappropriate books away from young children. Some three out of five believe that children should not be able to borrow books containing explicit language. And one need not be a parent to object to offense in the curriculum. We live in a time, remember, when college students, on the verge of being launched into adult life, too often flee from challenge and scurry for the safety of spaces where they can control what they’re exposed to.

None of this would matter if books didn’t matter. But they do. To take just a single example, recent studies confirm the long-held suspicion that reading complex literary fiction (as against genre fiction or nonfiction) tends to make us more empathetic toward others.  I have argued elsewhere that reading difficult and challenging books makes us better democratic citizens.

None of this is to say that those who create the curriculum are always right and parents always wrong. Much as we would like to pretend that only interest groups get up to this mischief, as I have mentioned, the principal objectors are parents. This should come as no surprise. Few parents are likely to be indifferent to the ideas their children consume. I am on record, and have been for a long time, in favor of the rights of parents to a greater say in what their children are required to read.  This isn’t because I think exposure to uncomfortable ideas is bad, but because I trust the instincts of parents to know in most cases what’s best for their daughters and sons.  You and I might disagree about which ideas are objectionable, but every parent would draw the line somewhere.

Still, there is a world of difference between parents who want to control the nurture of their own children and parents who consider certain books so dangerous that other people’s children should not be able to read them either. A parent’s privilege has nothing to do with what a library can stock. And even if you disagree with me about parents and children -- even if you think the state should be allowed willy-nilly to force its preferred titles upon the young -- there remains a class of people whom nearly all of us seek fervently to protect from ideas that make them uncomfortable:

Ourselves.

There is a well-known social science experiment in which people are invited to sit in a waiting room before participating in a test. What they don’t know is that the waiting room is the test. On the table in front of them are various magazines, many of them with known political leanings. The test subjects, thinking they are waiting, pick up magazines whose ideological views they happen to share.

That nobody finds anything remarkable about this -- that all of us would predict it -- helps illustrate our dilemma. We insist on the importance of exposing young people to challenging ideas, but we all too rarely apply the same principle to ourselves. Books, cable channels, websites, even Facebook friends -- all are nowadays neatly divided, red and blue.

As so often, the problem is us. We talk a brave game about how horrible it is to deny children exposure to views that some find objectionable -- and then we work hard to deny ourselves exposure to views that we find objectionable.

Although the usual metaphor for this tendency is an echo chamber, we are really building tombs, spaces where the time-honored democratic tools of argument and reason and tolerance for disagreement are buried. Our intellectual tombs are sealed far more tightly than the normative worlds we worry some families might create for their children. And the social cost of restricting books in libraries, heavy though it might be, can hardly compare with the costs imposed by adults who bar ideas we don’t like from our own minds. Maybe Banned Books Week is a good time for all of us to resolve to do better.

  1. Of course, one might object instead on the ground that the novel itself is considerably overrated.

  2. Unfortunately, genre fiction has been declared the victor in the book wars.

  3. In this I am far from alone. See, to take a few examples, this, this and this.

  4. More formally, the net sum of the harms caused by parents erring about what their children need is smaller than the net sum of harms caused by others overruling their wishes.

  5. For this and similar evidence, see chapter 3 of this book.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net