Banned Books Week

A musing on the different attitudes we have to censorship of books and censorship of the internet.

Image: CC-BY 2.0 Flickr: thejester100

This week (September 30 – Oct 6, 2012) is Banned Books Week, a national week in America “celebrating the freedom to read”.

 There isn’t really a UK equivalent and, although the lists of ‘most challenged books’ that were released at the start of the week are from American libraries and retailers, it rightfully gains discussion and attention in the UK too.

 Last year I sat down and read the entirety of the American Library Association’s list of challenged books. There was a certain mockery in my reading, mixed with the outrage; “who are these ridiculous people?” I think to myself, “in the UK” I crow “we are above such behaviour”.

Because we don’t record challenges to our libraries as thoroughly as the Americans do I assumed these challenges don’t happen here, but some quick questions and googling this week reveals that people ask for books to be removed from our council libraries frequently, so no matter where we are based issues of censorship are always relevant.

 Banned Books Week gains excellent coverage partly because most people can say:

“Banning To Kill A Mockingbird or Brave New World is idiotic! Don’t they recognise literary excellence?”

and thus parents who try to ban Huxley  can be made to seem silly and inconsequential, even where they are effective there is an element of outraged snobbery in the discourse surrounding that kind of decision.  

That attitude becomes a bit more difficult to sustain when you read about Fifty Shades of Grey being challenged. After all, isn’t that a kind of pornography? I don’t see porn in the dvd section of the library so I can at least understand the sentiment. And whilst some may lay claims to this strain of erotica leading to feminine empowerment and embracing kink, the BDSM community isn’t embracing the books and the weak-willed Anastasia isn’t giving female self-determination a good name. However, it is this train of thought that results in  your own morals (in my case strident feminism) above someone else’s reading or learning. We all have something that we find offensive.

I read a great deal of sites that discuss these issues and have found that it is sex and illustrations that bring up the most heated debates. Eight out of ten of the most challenged books in the ALA’s list of ‘The top 10 most frequently challenged books of 2011’ were done so for ‘sexually explicit’ or ‘nudity’. It is why the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund have a harder time defending manga and Lost Girls than libraries do explaining why the violence in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is permissable.

Where words alone are concerned we believe in protection, education and literary value, but with the introduction of images we can become far more aggressive.

The National Coalition against Censorship in the Guardian describe challenges to The Dirty Cowboy, a children’s book, because its namesake is depicted having a bath. The logic that says a nude image is obscene and might lead to pornography is the same logic that sees advocacy of online censorship prevail.

Some people believe in ensuring that content is always ‘age-appropriate’. However Joan Bertin, aruges, “Ratings obscure the value of literature and inevitably lead to censorship.”

 I agree . Everyone develops at a different rate; I for one read Jaws at age nine and was only freaked out by the sex when I read it again at twelve. My parents held the same double standard that so many of us do about books. We weren’t allowed to watch 18 films till that birthday (apart from a long sustained campaign by my sister and I to watch Quadrophenia because of the motorbikes) but they never kept track of the books we read.

 The Government readily disccuses putting an 18-rating on content across the internet, when we don’t see bills being passed on the content of libraries (see the recent Department for Education consultation on parental controls). The Open Rights Group researched the kind of content that gets banned online using ‘adult content’ filters on mobile phones and found:

  • Bars and pub websites (because you can’t enter a pub until you are 18)
  • Parenting and breastfeeding sites (because you have to be over 18 to have a child)
  • Sexual education sites (because you have to be over 18 to have sex)
  • Forums and chatrooms (because it’s not safe for people under 18 to talk to each other)

 One of the arguments defending darkness in children’s books is that they deal with the real world. There are young people who have had to deal with death or suicide or family problems or sex or abuse or violence or racism. We can’t pretend it doesn’t happen. This makes some people uncomfortable, but there is a great tradition of defending this content in young adult books for its relevance.  

 I think we should remember that these same young people can find advice and support on the internet for these same issues. I spent some time working on a support forum for young people, giving advice on relationship issues. This is the kind of forum – dealing with self-harm, suicide, anorexia and sex that some people would want banned but, like the books discussed this week, hiding children from the real world doesn’t make them any safer.


Ruth Coustick is ORGzine Editor and likes to talk/blog in various places about books, feminism and human rights.


Further reading for Banned Book Week:






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By Ruth Coustick on Oct 05, 2012

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