Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Banned Books Week Showdown: Slate v. Book Riot (Spoiler Alert: Book Riot Wins)

Happy Banned Books Week, everyone. I hope you're all enjoying reading challenged literature the way I am (Harry Potter FTW!). It's true that reading a book categorized as 'banned or challenged' doesn't guarantee a good read, but you can't help but feel a little bit subversive when you do it. Or I can't.

This is as close to social rebellion as I'm likely to get. Let me have this.

However, Slate has suggested that "Banned Books Week is a Crock." Go ahead and read the article for yourself. I'm just going to sum up a handful of the major points given. Read the Book Riot article when it comes up, too, to get the full understanding.

Now, the Slate article made a pretty bold claim, so it better have something to back it up. On the surface, their argument seems cogent enough, right? We live in the information age. We can get any and all of these books from the internet, even if someone says "NO!" and slaps us on the wrist. So of course, there really aren't problems with banned books, right? Even if the school or a public library doesn't have the book because someone challenged it, you can just run over to Amazon and buy it for practically nothing.

That's where they lost me, but more on that toward the end.

It also brought up how weak the cases are for a lot of challenges and bans out there, and how a lot of them are in schools. Without actually saying as much, the implication is that bans in school libraries don't really count. Parents should have a say in what their children read, so those aren't real challenges and bans, right?

That cogent argument is looking a little worse for wear, now.

They bring up how it's gotten better, and they're right on that front. There's some legal protection, and a generally more accepting culture to allow theoretically offensive works to be read. But that doesn't mean the battle is won. That doesn't mean we shouldn't call attention to these things happening.

A large part of this article was also based on a woman trying to ban a book in Tennessee. She didn't want her teenage son reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (A fascinating book. You should read it.). She used her voice and made it known to the school that she didn't want her son or any other student reading this book. As the author said, this particular parent seems to have "confused gynecology with pornography."

The fact that the author and a lot of media outlets and the school district means that the book won, and since that's normally the case, we shouldn't really be worrying about Banned Books Week anymore. It's not exactly a fair argument to look at one case, is it?

Oh, also, the book didn't win. The woman was successful in stopping her son from reading it. The school provided him with another book. So now she's robbed a child of reading this book, and created extra work for a teacher who now (I'm assuming) has to write up two sets of assignments. One for the rest of the class, and one for this fifteen year old boy whose mother doesn't think he can handle some vagina talk.

Now, enter Book Riot, who makes a very succinct counter-statement: "Dear Slate: Banned Books Week Isn't a Crock." I won't go into a point by point of this one as much as the last one, mostly because a lot of my opinions are already in line with what's said.

See, when Slate suggests that people can just go buy the books if they're that concerned, that's all well and good for people who don't rely on their library for access to literature. Some people can't afford to go spend the money on a book, so they go to the library. When someone challenges a book and gets it banned, that means people in that community or that school don't have access to it. When a young adult book or middle grade book is challenged and moved to the adult section, younger readers are less likely to stumble upon it by searching, for one, and if they look for it specifically and have to go into the adult section, it's driving home the feeling of being off or wrong. While that might not be the greatest tragedy, making someone feel awkward, there's no God-damned point to it.

And they don't really touch on the fact that banning books from schools isn't harmless at all. Sherlock Holmes has been banned from certain schools for depictions of Mormonism. A book on forests banned because of the way it talks about the logging industry. Children and teenagers are being denied literature. That is a problem, no matter how small.

And what about outside of the US? It's true that Banned Books Week is put on by the American Library Association, but Slate very kindly reminded us that we have unprecedented access to information. When we post about it here in the US, it travels all over the world. While we might not have book burnings in the streets anymore (Or at least not often.), that's not true everywhere. At Worldcon, I was listening to a panel, and one of the panelists (Zaza Koshkadze) came from Georgia (The count, not the state.). A few years back, one of his author friends became a national bestseller there, but nobody read his book. How does that work?

Everyone bought his book, bought the whole first run, and burned the copies, because the content was controversial. Yes, he made his money, but nobody read the damn book. It was denied to people. That's why we need to bring attention to banned books. Not to mention the celebration of the past. Works that were controversial, even if they're fine now.

And if nothing else, if one day the whole world has moved past this and libraries and schools and bookstores can carry all books, do we really want to forget that books were banned and challenged at one point? No, of course not.

Hell, let's just face that facts: Banned Books Week gets people reading, and that's never a bad thing.


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