I am writing this column during Banned Books Week.
I know what you’re thinking, John should have gotten his act together and written his column about Banned Books Week in time for it to run during Banned Books Week, not after Banned Books Week.
But having written about an attempt in Virginia to make two books unavailable to minors under any circumstances in August, and a coordinated campaign against librarians — librarians! — who committed the sin of providing books to young people who wanted them in July, I figured readers had heard enough from me on this front.
It’s not a “boy who cried wolf” situation because the wolves are present and accounted for, but after a while, you start to feel like a nag.
But then two things happened during Banned Books Week that made me realize the alarm needs sounding again.
The first thing was reading about the actions of the Republican Party of Greenville, South Carolina, which wants to ban books on LGBTQ topics from the children and juvenile sections of county libraries.
Pretty standard stuff as far as that goes, but they’ve taken the extra step of checking out all of the books they object to, including titles like “Pride Puppy!” and “Daddy and Dada,” and secreting them in the basement of the organization’s headquarters.
They plan to keep checking out the books indefinitely to keep them out of the children’s sections at the county libraries.
The second thing that happened was the release of a PEN America report, “Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools,” which documents exactly what the title indicates, an explosion in attempts to ban books in school, with 2,532 instances of individual books being banned from July of 2021 to June of 2022.
These bans overwhelmingly target books with characters and content relating to marginalized communities: 41% had LGBTQ+ themes, 40% had protagonists or other prominent characters of color, and 21% dealt with themes of race and racism.
These are not just challenges or disputes over books, but actual bans, which PEN defines as, “any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”
The Greenville County Republicans have unilaterally banned access to certain books without engaging in any democratic deliberation or due process. This may be small stuff, compared with the “educational gag orders” that have come into existence in several states, including Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which has teachers fearing for their jobs if they even mention having a same-sex spouse.
But all of these actions are of a piece, where one group is attempting to dictate their personal preferences on the public. In many of these cases, it is a minority attempting to silence the wishes of the majority, but even if that’s not the case, there’s a little something called the First Amendment that still protects the rights of those minorities from the tyranny of the majority.
There is some good news. In that Virginia case I wrote about previously, a judge all but laughed the petitioners trying to ban access to two books on obscenity grounds out of court, ruling the law itself was unconstitutional.
I would love to write about other things, but as long as these attempts at book banning keep happening, what else is more important?
John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”
Book recommendations from the Biblioracle
John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read
1. “The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain” by Mark Twain
2. “The Manticore” by Robertson Davies
3. “World of Wonders” by Robertson Davies
4. “Henry and Clara” by Thomas Mallon
5. “The Prophets” by Robert Jones Jr.
— Ned P., Chicago
We recently learned of the passing of Hilary Mantel, a wonderful writer of historical fiction who certainly had more books in front of her. For Ned, I’m recommending Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” and if that captures him, he can move on to the rest of her trilogy on King Henry VIII’s court.
1. “The Guncle” by Steven Rowley
2. “Book Lovers” by Emily Henry
3. “Things We Never Got Over” by Lucy Score
4. “This Time Tomorrow” by Emma Straub
5. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple
— Molly P., Los Angeles
Molly wants strong, page-turning entertainment, but hopefully doesn’t mind a little satirical bite because I’m leaning into “Very Nice” by Marcy Dermansky, which feels like a good fit if my analysis is accurate.
1. “Mercury Pictures Presents” by Anthony Marra
2. “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
3. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey
4. “Catch-22″ by Joseph Heller
5. “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” by Tom Robbins
— Gale P., Chicago
In this case, I have some extra intelligence from Gale that the last three books are rereads, which tells me that Gale enjoys some off-kilter storytelling. This brings to mind A.M. Homes, who happens to have a new novel that crackles with wit while still bringing a healthy dose of pathos. The book is “The Unfolding.”
Get a reading from the Biblioracle
Send a list of the last five books you’ve read and your hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org.