Today’s book bans might be more dangerous than those from the past

From the Washington Post:

Last year, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause (R) made national news when he released a list of more than 800 books that he wants to prohibit schools and libraries from carrying, inspiring conservative school districts across the nation to step up their own efforts. The majority of these books feature characters who, like many young Americans, are people of color, LGBTQ or both. Nationally, we are experiencing what many educators, librarians and journalists accurately have dubbed an unprecedented wave of censorship.

Of course, this is not the first time politicians and citizens have mobilized to ban books. During the Cold War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and his allies waged a variety of censorship campaigns, with some Americans even participating in book-fueled bonfires. Political officials and mobilized parents, with conservative organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion, pulled “subversive” books from library and store shelves in the late 1940s and early 1950s and intimidated librarians, teachers and store managers to keep them from stocking them.

But beyond a shared tenor of anxiety, Cold War book-banning campaigns and those of today differ substantially in strategy and effect. McCarthy-era book censorship was part of a much larger, coordinated campaign that used the federal and state governments to restrict other “subversive” art, including film and television. And, such efforts were international. In fact, one of the most successful efforts was the removal of books from Overseas Libraries, a network of American libraries under the jurisdiction of the State Department that served as an arm of cultural diplomacy.

But through it all, young people’s literature often escaped the attention of censors and, in fact, grew more diverse and more focused on young adolescents as an audience, anticipating the genre that we now call “young adult literature.”

This is because McCarthy-era book bans often focused on mass-adopted textbooks as the easiest way to control what students read. They cared most about two issues: anti-communism and race. Often, the two went hand in hand as civil rights activists were accused of holding communist beliefs. Textbooks, particularly social studies textbooks, that critiqued capitalism, economic equality or the health of American democracy were withdrawn from the classroom throughout the 1950s, and their publication was stopped entirely at times.

. . . .

Everywhere, parents were less likely to object to books that were part of their own education than recently published textbooks written by liberal college professors they had never heard of. And so, students in grades seven through 12 continued to read novels in English classes (“Silas Marner,” “Great Expectations” and “The Red Badge of Courage” were the three most commonly taught), along with plays and poetry. High school students read “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar” more than any other literary works. Adolescent literature instruction, in other words, consisted of literary classics steeped in familiar civic and ethical messages — about industry, integrity and self-sufficiency — that many students’ parents had also read when they were in school.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG notes that the Left Wing is just as liable to ban books and authors of which they disapprove as the Right Wing is.

See here and here for a discussion.

38 thoughts on “Today’s book bans might be more dangerous than those from the past”

  1. A “ban” makes a book unavailable in any form, anywhere. Only an extremely tiny number of books have been banned in this country, and then only in extremely limited geographic areas.

    Just checked again – Amazon will happily sell you a copy of “Mein Kampf” (original German or English translation) at a very reasonable price (in Kindle even!). Or a copy of “Das Kapital” or “The Communist Manifesto.” (Don’t waste your money there, though – the American Communist Party will give the ebook to you for free. At least there, they practice what they preach…)

    I’ve noticed that neither the old “witches under every bush” or the new “transphobic bad-thinking” book banners have accomplished very much vis-a-vis J. K. Rowling. Now, you don’t find Harry Potter dominating the Top 100 Amazon list these days, although “Sorcerer’s Stone” is still hanging on at #100 – which is highly unlikely to be the case for a single one of the other 99 after 28 years. (Her dominance may very well be reestablished with a movie release. I seem to remember the books taking up much more space on the list when the last “Fantastic Beasts” was released; there are two or three more of those to come, and rumors of a movie from the “Cursed Child” stage play.)

    And, dag-nab it, I once again forgot to log out before doing that first search. Now I’m going to have a surge in garbage recommendations again…

    • Rowling’s most recent book hit the top of the UK charts last week, I believe.
      Doing good business in the US, too. #3 in mystery, #4 in suspense, #5 in thrillers.

      More interesting, I just found out she has an ongoing C.B. STRIKE series via the BBC and HBOMAX. Four seasons so far. Each season follows one of the books. And it hasn’t been cancelled. Or “cancelled”.

      I’ll have to check it.
      British mysteries tend to be clever.
      (Still hoping for a fourth season of MARCELLA.)

        • I found that years ago, the chiastic structure (as it’s also called) was what made me have mad respect for Rowling. Since I never read interviews from her, this was actually my first clue she was a planner, and I thought her plan was pretty clever. At the time I first read about this structure (I think from the same person at your link) I don’t think the final two Potter books were out, but the end of the series confirmed that she definitely was using the chiasmus.

          Seeing how Rowling used the structure was so cool, and for me it also cracked the code on how Bronze Age people were able to remember stories passed down orally, before writing. It wasn’t merely raw memorization, but also just how they structured the stories they were telling. Since Rowling I’ve talked about using ring structure with other writers, particularly how it could be used to plan a series. It’s an excellent arrow to keep in one’s storytelling quiver.

          One writing blog that shows how the chiastic structure is used in both standalone and series books:The Power of Chiastic Story Structure (Especially in a Series). You’ll note at the link she has a diagram of how the chiasmus is used in the Genesis Flood Sequence in the Bible.

          Back to Rowling, when I saw the hardcover of the Inkblack Heart I was immediately interested. I never heard of the Cormorant Strike character before this, but now I’m curious and want to dip in. I never knew Rowling had a TV series. So much catching up to do…

          Yeah, no, the cancellers are not going to have much luck. They’re welcome to hold their breath, though 🙂

          • I tried the link but it kicked me to their homepage. 🙁
            I’ll try searching for it later.

            As for Rowling what exposed her as a planner was the statement thatthe Potter books were designed to be progessively age appropriate for the kids as Harry aged. A pantser *might* pull that off but a planner woukd have an easier time.

            In case anybody wondered, she’s definitely no one trick pony. And she can afford to wander at will.

            • I fixed the link; you caught in the 30 second interval before I did. Sorry about that!

              There’s a lot to learn from Rowling as a storyteller. There’s a reason she resonates with varied audiences, adults and children both.

        • For nesting purposes I’m replying here to the Pentiment question. I finally had a chance to check out the trailer a little while ago. It looks like something off the beaten path, daring and risky in a way that’s refreshing, especially for a maker of “triple A” games like Obsidian. I don’t normally play RPGs where you can’t adjust the character, e.g., the Witcher, but Pentiment’s trailer makes me think of Cadfael, or perhaps The Name of the Rose, in a good way.

          Then I see the game is also supposed to take place over a quarter of a century, which puts me in mind of Pillars of the Earth, which really is different than the usual fare. Even Dragon Age 2 only took place over a 10 year period, so I suspect the 25-year time frame means some characters will be born or die or age up as the game progresses, which adds another dimension. This quote is a selling point to me:

          It will be up to you to decide Andreas’ choices, from his educational background and lifestyle to how he investigates the murders that happen around him. From sneaking into the abbey library late at night to look at secret documents, to playing a round of a tavern’s favorite card game to get information from those who are playing, it’s up to you to choose how to use the precious time you’re given to investigate the suspects. Every decision and accusation Andreas makes carries consequences that will impact the tightly-knit Alpine community for generations to come.

          Pentiment is coming out the day before my birthday, so it’s perfect timing.

          • OBSIDIAN is making the most of the MS deep pockets, staffing up and dusting off the backburnered projects they couldn’t find backers for as independents. Both GROUNDED and PENTIMENT are the kinds of narrative projects no publisher would touch but MS can support it on GAMEPASS, which demands and endles stream on contentto minimize churn.

            PENTIMENT is a spiritual descendant of DISCO ELYSIUM:

            Windows Central has a very positive review.
            I broke down and switched to GAMEPASS so I’ll get it on day one. Looking forward to playing medieval Columbo. The visual style alone demands a try.

            (If I haven’t mentioned it, GAMEPASS 1 month trial is $1.00)

            BTW, AVOWED is set in the Pillars world but first person, ala ELDER SCROLLS. And OBSIDIAN is doing another big game in addition to OUTER WORLDS 2. And there are unconfirmed reports of a FALLOUT “NEW VEGAS 2” . Fingers and assorted limbs crossed.

            • This is a good sign the marriage to Microsoft has proven more blissful than what usually happens when big fish snap up the smaller ones.

              • The kinder gentler MS management is giving their acquisitions a lot more leeway tban in the Ballmer years. Essentially the rule for game developers is “make good games and we’ll support you” . The pending Activision buy is heartily supported by the Activision rank and file and not just because MS pays the highest salaries in tbeir biz. The promise of bringing back tbe fallow IPs has most licking their chops. The EA staff is green with envy.

                Most recently tbey’ve set up IP management divisions to manage licensing. The HALO series did well enough and they’re alrrady filming tbe FALLOUT Show. ELDER SCROLLS is under discussion. I expect OUTER WORLDS to be next.

                They’re reinventing the gaming *business*.
                And SONY is running scared.

        • To Jamie and Felix:

          Thanks for the links on “Ring Composition” or “Chiastic structure”.

          The posts on hogwartsprofessor are so deeply disturbing. This is one of those moments where I will either consume the concept or the concept will consume me.


          • You’re welcome! It’s amazing how much structure itself can help with storytelling. Ideas, techniques, themes, plots … good hunting to you.

  2. “PG notes that the Left Wing is just as liable to ban books and authors of which they disapprove as the Right Wing is.” That’s my go-to position on all these articles today. Who’s the one seeking to ban and what is their political ideology?

    I oppose this notion of banning books on either side of the aisle. I would never favor banning (or burning) Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” It’s terrible as a history book. Don’t burn it. Read Mary Grabar’s “Debunking Howard Zinn…” or do your own research. Zinn’s book makes a great starter for learning historiography.

    • You can also learn stuff about how antagonists adjust their view of the world to fit their agenda.
      Consequences on full display on the world scene even as we type.

      (The shade of Peter The Great is undoubtedly screaming in the nether realm.)

  3. I don’t believe in banning books at all in principle. I remember my mother’s horror when she caught me reading Sean Connery at 12, but the sex scenes rolled right by me.

    However… there is an argument to be made that the modern delight in obscenity (literally: Greek for things which should be “offstage”) really is a problem, for both extreme graphic violence and explicit violent sex. Things which only adults would do are one thing; things which only psychopaths would do should probably not be lit with klieg lights for pre-adolescents.

    I’m looking at you, Jerzy Kosinski, for The Painted Bird, which I stole off my mother’s college-auditing bookshelves at 12 and was sorry I’d done so for years. Now that’s my own fault, in my own home. But I wouldn’t want it in a pre-high school library.

    I do think that parents do have a duty to protect a certain level of innocence of psychopathy for their children at a young age. It’s one thing to know that there are murderers and dangers lurking in the dark. It’s another to be taken along as a viewer to delight and dwell on scenes of torture. Ghost stories and the modern comedic horror movies are as close as they need to come.

    I remember meeting, as perhaps all children do, people who are just “wrong” in some fundamental way, who made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, who you wanted to avoid at any cost. That’s warning enough.

    • when she caught me reading Sean Connery at 12

      Do you mean Ian Fleming? Google suggests Connery wasn’t a writer, but Google is crap these days 🙂 At any rate, I always loved his version of James Bond, so it’s all good. The first time I saw a Bond movie it was one of the Timothy Dalton editions, and I was mystified that this character was supposed to be such a big deal. Why did people think Bond was cool? Then some channel did a Bond marathon and I saw the Connery version. Question asked, question answered.

      Otherwise, your larger point is dead on to me. It’s disturbing the lengths certain people are going to destroy the innocence of kids with books that are supposedly “for” kids. Some of those authors / librarians may merely be damaged. But some of them are flat evil. Either type should be kept far away from the levers of influence over children.

      I can’t take seriously the protests about books being “banned” because the protesters steadfastly refuse to acknowledge what kind of books are being banned from schools. They lie and dance around and pretend it’s “Catcher in the Rye” when it’s really obscenities that can’t be read aloud in school board meetings, possibly unlawfully if a child is present. If the protestors of bannings can’t tell the whole truth on the matter, then they’re tacitly admitting which side they’re really on: they’re the bad guys.

      • Oops. Yes, of course Ian Fleming [shakes head ruefully]. Books, not movies (though only Sean Connery will really do…)

        And, “yes” on the raising of hackles being a warning. You can watch children sidling away from people like that, even when their parents don’t notice. It’s more like seeing a large venomous snake than a tiger: you have less confidence that you can predict what the snake will do, and the critter that set you off is more inhuman than a mammal. I think scent may be involved, at a subliminal level — perhaps that external acrid smell you can get from some hormones (adrenaline?).

        I remember how that operates, and it’s interesting. When you’re a child, you know that adult behavior can be puzzling, and you’re used to just shrugging at it. But those people — you know that something much more fundamental is wrong, and it’s not because they are adults — it’s because they’re not really “human” in some sense and can’t be trusted. And you know that the other adults can’t quite see it the way you can, though your age-mates can. Some of these people are minor figures of authority (teachers, etc.) — not major ones, because they’re too broken to get that far. Most are just criminal in some form.

        • Sean Connery went right by me. I wonder how many people that are Bond fans (I’m not particularly so, I’m more likely to watch one of the semi-spoofs that Dean Martin starred in) would struggle to remember the name “Ian Fleming.”

          • I usually pay attention to the opening credits, and Ian Fleming is mentioned in James Bond’s opening credits 🙂 And I’ve read a few things about him over the years, including his involvement in Operation Mincemeat. They even show him (of course) in the movie on Netflix. Talk about writing what you know…

  4. I agree that I’m against book banning by either side of the aisle. Saying not to keep R-rated books in a school library, I’m absolutely for, but in principle. Having not reviewed all of these books personally, I’d just rather there was non-political discussion that resulted in properly sorting grade-inappropriate material out of school libraries in particular and leave them in regular libraries to be regulated personally and not educationally.

  5. I can’t remember anyone advocating for banning any book. What I see is disagreement about what should be in school libraries.

    Many people have no reason consider the wisdom of librarians to be superior to their own. So, the disagreement revolves around what the librarians want vs the parents.

  6. What I find most frustrating about book-banning efforts (religion-based or not, political-allegiance-based or not) is that the proposed “ban” is almost always supposed to benefit other people (regardless of age) by preventing dangerous language/ideas from polluting their minds through their virgin eyes.† And the bans are usually proposed by people who haven’t read the works in question, or all too often are incapable of reading anything very well. “Get thee to a nunnery” — especially after taking the rest of that particular speech (Hamlet Act III sc. 1) apart and putting it back together — is an Elizabethan, and in particular Londonian, exhortation to go work in a brothel. This is both more consistent with Hamlet’s character and the particular political climate from 1598–1600, a time of even-more-extreme-than-American-education-leads-one-to-believe hostility to Catholicism in England, including criminal prosecution of at least three Mothers Superior for “pandering” (the somewhat-genteel accusation that they were running Houses of Ill Repute). Hamlet was not telling Ophelia to isolate herself in contemplation and service to the poor! Then there’s the interracial marriage and politics of Othello, the cannibalism of Coriolanus, the preteen/early teen sex-and-marriage of R&J (and perhaps the less said about the gender of who would have actually played Juliet, the better)…

    …and that’s just Shakespeare. We won’t put out any fires in the Lilliputian palace today. Nor will we do a careful and close reading of the Song of Solomon, Lev. 25, etc. And perhaps most pointedly, we won’t do a close and careful reading of Article I § 2 of the U.S. Constitution as it read until 1868. Because things change, especially regarding what speech might be considered offensive… and often over a much shorter timespan than these examples. Even at a very young age, it’s critical to understand that not everyone is or thinks the same, and that’s fine — this isn’t Metropolis. <sarcasm> Besides, the truly ‘murikan absolutist-free-market approach to speech means that the best cure for “bad speech” is more speech, not less. </sarcasm> The real problem is that those who propose book bans don’t trust those charged with “teaching from” or “curating” the materials to simultaneously impose a right-thinking model/interpretation on the “bad speech.” They wouldn’t mind the proliferation of “the n-word” in Huckleberry Finn if they could trust that all teachers would explain that “that word” is naughty, and why, and enforce appropriate consequences for the naughtiness (which will just drive it to the playground or bathroom, but Sam the Eagle will still believe in the superiority of classic ballet).

    Book banning depends upon the dubious proposition that if “impressionable minds” (however defined) are never exposed to “bad ideas,” those same “impressionable minds” will remain orthodox, in solidarity, conformist, and perhaps most of all unthreatening forever. The irony that so, so many of those who propose book banning are doing so not to benefit themselves (or even their own children), but to control others over whom they have no moral/ethical/political right to exert control (cf. US Constitution Art. I cl. 3) , seldom gets much acknowledgement — let alone criticism.

    † Which might have some — not all that much, but some — chance of working in either Amish country or at the Unabomber’s cabin… because actually preventing exposure is impossible. It’s been impossible since the advent of general public schooling, not to mention this little thing called “mass media.”

    • Anyone know if a close and careful reading of US Constitution Art. I cl. 3 indicates it applies to parents’ interest in the education of their children?

      If the bans are proposed by people who haven’t read the books in question, are they put on the shelves by librarians who have also not read them? Are they supported by people who likewise have not read them? Who in this Shakespearian comedy has the obligation to do close and careful reading, and who does not? What does a close and careful reading of the US Constitution tell us?

  7. The fact is that most parents are okay with their kids being exposed to ideas other than theirs–they just don’t want those ideas taught as gospel, and are under the peculiar impression that they should have some say in what their tax dollars pay for. Conversely, most librarians don’t want to turn normal kids into…something else, they just want kids who aren’t normal to not feel utterly isolated.

    The problem is that you have the maniacal bookburners on the one hand, and then you have the people who are under the impression that it’s perfectly fine and normal to have books that you can’t read out loud in a school board meeting in a school library. Each group tries to use the existence of the other to justify themselves.

    • A parent objecting to the inclusion of specific books in a library is a maniac? I’d say the parents use the existence of the books on the shelves to justify their actions on behalf of their kids. Remove the books and they won’t care at all about the other side.

      • People used to trust organizations, government and otherwise. A majority didn’t particularly care what their kids were taught in school.
        Today nobody trusts anything or anybody and a growing plurality are belatedly looking into what their kids are exposed to with hair-on-fire reactions at the divergence of values they see. They no longer accept “We’re professionals. We know what we’re doing. ” as valid answers. Resort to authority only feeds the reaction.
        Name calling only makes it work.
        At some point the “professionals” are going to have to accept that, right or wrong, the parental concerns need to be taken seriously and addressed. Or else.

        Do note that in the UK there is a steady decline in library funding, with some calling for tbeir abolition. That approach might find more traction tban “defund the police”.

  8. Talking about on her majesty’s secret service … RIP Her Majesty – the second Elizabethan era ends as the world’s most constant sage and stateswoman bids farewell. Queen Elizabeth II imperceptibly shaped many of our lives one way or another and along with Daniel Craig and even Paddington Bear made us laugh … and even introduced us to the delights of marmalade sandwiches.

    If you’re an espionage aficionado, an Ian Fleming follower or a 007 devotee then you must know about puffer fish poisons, who wrote the “Trout Memo”, what it was all about and how it was crucial to the ensuing Operation Mincemeat. If not, and you want to be an espionage illuminatus, you had best Google “Trout Memo”.

    Of course, most espionage aficionados and real spies have read Bill Fairclough’s epic spy thriller #BeyondEnkription in #TheBurlingtonFiles series. It was written by a real secret agent for espionage cognoscenti and actual spies and even includes many examples of lesser known spy practices that Ian Fleming would have loved.

    The protagonist of The Burlington Files, Edward Burlington aka Bill Fairclough, lived just as “fast and furious” a life as James Bond or even the Gray Man did but with one subtle difference: it actually happened. Indeed, all his exploits in London, Nassau and Port au Prince in the first stand-alone novel in the series are based on hard facts some of which you can even check out with press cuttings.

    By the way, Fairclough’s MI6 handler Mac aka Col Alan Pemberton CVO MBE knew Ian Fleming, Kim Philby and KGB Col Oleg Gordievsky. No surprise then that John le Carré refused to write a series of collaborative spy novels with Fairclough given Philby ended John le Carré’s MI6 career. Little wonder also that in hindsight Ian Fleming was thankful that he didn’t work directly for MI6.

    See and if you have any questions remember the best quote from The Burlington Files to date is “Don’t ask me, I’m British”.

  9. Yep. To give one particularly egregious example, why exactly, a librarian would decide to not only buy, but defend the the buying of, a book aimed at middle schoolers that explains the ins and outs of anal sex is beyond me.

    Worth noting, though, is that as the article points out, library funding started being contentious even before these controversies started, and usually for bad reasons. Unfortunately, this has exacerbated the mentality among librarians that they are the Guardians of Learning and Culture and that anyone who questions their decisions is an anti-intellectual swine. Which is how we get to librarians doing things like what I talked about in the first paragraph.

    Be hanged if I know how to fix the problem.

    • Tom, you’re right: There is an attitude problem. Among “librarians” and “educators” and “psychologists” and “social workers.”† The refusal to listen, the refusal to accept outliers (do not get me started on how the “behavioral health/education complex” treats children who are simultaneously gifted and psychologically impaired). Reaching slightly more broadly, Marie Barnett and Lilian Gobitis… and George Takei and Gordon Hirabayashi… and, for that matter, Jim Thorpe.

      The confounding problem is that most of the alternatives end up being worse. So long as “experts” remain within the bounds of their expertise, their considered opinions should get more (not definitive) weight… so long as they have evaluated actual facts and not just doctrine. But the same goes for nonexperts demanding their “rights” — whether as parents or citizens or whatever. Do those “questionable” books belong in a hypothetical library? Absolutely. In this particular library? Maybe. For this particular patron (adult or child)? Perhaps.

      The short version: Context matters. But the context that SetOfTaxpayerParents X would impose on my kids because unshakeable doctrincal predispositions get in the way, even without considering the “no factual inquiry” problem, is to say the least problematic. So problematic that there is no universally acceptable answer, because one can always find edge cases and lacunae.

      † And not to put too fine a point upon it, definitely among preachers, politicians, doctors, and lawyers.

      • Don’t forget taxpayers because most libraries (and schools) rely on local levies. Some folks insist on a say how their money is spent.
        The UK may have to right idea after all.
        If a rational balance can’t be reached, just give up on government funding.
        Let NGO’s pay.

        • With the massive expansion of information freely available via the internet, libraries may have to justify their existence more than they might have 100 years back. We might ask what libraries can do better than anyone else? There definitely are things, and losing focus on the core mission is dangerous.

          And NGOs? I used to pay $25 per year for a membership in a large university scientific library. Bargain.

      • I share an unshakeable doctrincal predisposition with billions around the world that men cannot get pregnant. We also hold the earth is not flat. It’s easy to understand why many object to books affirming both male pregnancy and flat earth. We also object, on unshakeable doctrincal predispositions, to schools affirming the same in classrooms or libraries, especially when targeted at kids who trust they are being told the truth.

        • Just as “glory” is not appropriate shorthand for “a good knock down battle,” “doctrinal predisposition” is not appropriate shorthand for “the result of factual inquiry into the surface conformation of the earth.” The distinction was precisely my point.


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