Libraries and Learning
September 23, 2019
Every year since 1982, the American Library Association, publishers, booksellers, and allied organizations like PEN America have dedicated a week in September to highlight the importance of the freedom to read. This is Banned Books Week. Admittedly, it might be tempting back off on the rhetoric and call it “books people take steps to try to remove from schools and libraries and often succeed week” because we don’t generally see books being censored by the government, but that wouldn’t as effectively communicate the fact that a lot of people have their reading choices constrained or threatened because somebody thinks certain books are satanic or might convert youth into gays or should be deep-sixed because they have bad words in them. The attempts at suppression we hear about most often have to do with sexuality and kids, but Harry Potter has been a hot item on the list, too. (Sometimes it does seem as if demons have been summoned, but I don’t think reading that series aloud is responsible.)
Ironically, Edward Snowden and the publisher of his memoir have just been sued by two intelligence agencies because the former government contractor-turned-whistleblower-turned-permanent-exile didn’t comply with a nondisclosure agreement and didn’t let the agencies he worked for edit things out of the book. (There are no government secrets revealed in the book – just information that previously appeared in news stories and his personal story.) To be sure, they aren’t preventing the books from being available, they just want to seize any proceeds that would go to Snowden and have sued the publisher to make them hand over that portion of the proceeds. Still, it might make publishers reluctant to take on books by less famous authors that are either held up by a lengthy and questionable redaction process or might cost them legal fees.
But our government doesn’t actually ban books, does it? Sure it does! The federal government, and state and local governments, do it all the time. The New Jim Crow. The Color Purple. Excel for Dummies. In the incarceration capital of the world, books are often withheld from prisons because of their content, though sometimes for capricious and inexplicable reasons. When this kind of censorship becomes public prison officials often back down because it’s embarrassing. But still it happens. Access to books can be suppressed in other ways. You can’t just send a book you’ve read and want to share to a prisoner. Many if not most prisons require people to buy new books only from authorized vendors. Some are moving to arrangements with a vendor that supplies “free” tablets that offer a limited range of books for a high price – and in some cases are the only books incarcerated people are allowed to read. Mind you, families of incarcerated people already have to pay exorbitant rates to communicate with their loved ones, increasingly through corporate systems that charge a lot, and incarcerated people earn peanuts if they have jobs inside, in some states, their labor pays them nothing at all.
You know what book is among the most often requested? A dictionary. For some reason, that breaks my heart a little.
Books and education help people survive, not just when they’re locked up. We know it can help formerly incarcerated people get on with their lives. It may not be possible to dispose of the excess books in your personal library by donating them to prisons, but the Prison Book Program has useful list of books to prison programs if you’d like to help.
Meanwhile, let’s pay attention to these places in America where censorship and book banning happen to people every day.