Title

Barred

Nothing demonstrates books are powerful more clearly than trying to keep them from being read.

January 8, 2018
 
 

In my first semester of library school, we had an interesting discussion. (This was decades ago; I don’t remember much from that semester, but this moment stuck.) The course was Collection Development and the teacher, Don Davis, challenged us with the question: “Can a book be harmful?”

The instant and universal response was no, primarily because it seemed like a trick question. We mustn’t ever refuse to add a book to our collection (or remove it) because someone calls it harmful. People should be free to read whatever they want. Librarians mustn’t become censors. Davis didn’t disagree, but he wanted us to think harder about what that actually means. Books can be dangerous. The Turner Diaries and Mein Kampf have inspired people to engage in violence just as YouTube videos inspire ISIS wannabes and personalized Google results influenced the mass murder of black church members by a white supremacist. Tyndale translating the bible into English was controversial at the time. (Reader, they executed him.) A “fake news” memoir in preprint form probably played a role in inciting anti-Catholic crowds to burn a convent school in Boston in 1834. It became a bestseller despite being wholly fabricated. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion inflamed hatred of Jews at the beginning of the 20th century, and though it was exposed as a hoax in 1921, its false claims still circulate around the toxic parts of the web. For better or worse, peoples’ beliefs can be informed of deformed by books. Don Davis asked us to consider how we could insist that reading books was a powerful force for good while simultaneously denying they could have any negative effect.

Being dangerous, of course, doesn’t mean a book should be suppressed. Reading should never be made a crime. Even terrible books can give insight into unfamiliar perspectives. That doesn’t mean a library must put a copy of The Turner Diaries on their shelves or that a publisher must publish a book, but it does mean we have to be clear why we are making the decisions we do.*

Then there are cases in which a book that isn’t terrible is suppressed because it’s dangerously informative. The ACLU of New Jersey, responding to complaints from prisoners and family members, has sent a letter to the state’s Department of Corrections to protest the banning of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness from two New Jersey prisons. The ACLU memo includes long list of banned books and magazines, which include A Game of Thrones, Outdoor Life, and Popular Science. These are not materials the prison library won’t acquire; these are lists kept in the mailroom telling what items being sent to prisoners should be confiscated on the grounds they might “disrupt the orderly running of the correctional facility.” The state of Texas goes further, having a list of 10,000 banned books including Freakanomics, but they haven’t gotten around to banning The New Jim Crow. Yet.

The presence or absence of particular books in prisons may be a small thing in the larger picture of incarceration (and you can read The New Jim Crow to get a sense of how bad it is) but in a strange way it affirms the power of books. If ideas are too risky to put into the hands of person who is behind bars, they must be powerful, indeed.

This seems a good time to mention again that there are volunteer programs for getting books to people behind bars (at least unless they wind up on a mailroom banned books list). You might find a program near you to donate to, or you might purchase books from the Amazon wish list for the all-volunteer education program at the Indiana Women’s Prison – a list that I’m happy to see is considerably shorter than it was before Christmas! If you believe books matter, this is a good way to act on that belief.

 

* Take Dangerous as an example (one that made librarians examine their beliefs before cancellation made it moot). It seemed clear why Simon & Schuster wanted to publish a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, darling disruptor of the “alt right” (there was money to be made) and why they wriggled out of it as soon as they could (after he was seen on video defending having sex with minors - apparently bigotry is fine, but then he went and touched the third rail). The editor’s comments submitted as an exhibit in Yiannopoulos’s lawsuit against the publisher show that even a willing publisher would have trouble turning his shtick into a coherent argument, though they were all too willing to try.) 

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