It’s middle of the Banned Books Week, “the national book community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read.” Throughout the country, “[h]undreds of libraries and bookstores draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events.”
Banned Books Week highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. —American Library Association
Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Hundreds of books have been either removed or challenged in schools and libraries in the United States every year. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982. According to the American Library Association, there were 326 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2011, and many more go unreported. —BannedBooksWeek.org
Hearing about Banned Books Week, now in its 30th year, for the first time, Central Europeans possessing a memory of censorship under socialism may be excused for wondering, “What the…?” How can books be banned in the country that bills itself as the leader of the free world, the beacon of freedom, the bastion of the right to free speech?
A closer reading of the above description and other content at BannedBooksWeek.org and ALA.org reveals several differences between book bans in the U.S. and under socialism.
- Socialist regimes, such as in Czechoslovakia, banned books that challenged the rule of the Communist Party, promoted Western and other ‘dangerous’ ideas, including the freedom of speech, or otherwise harmed people’s ideological purity. In other words, bans were ideologically inspired and issued by the government (top-down) to blanket a country’s entire territory. The absurdity of the ban’s implementation in Czechoslovakia still strikes me: the list of banned books, also called “index literature” was not published but if you got caught reading, owning, loaning, copying, or distributing a volume on the list, you went to prison.*
- By contrast, in the U.S. the impetus for book bans comes from individuals who challenge their availability in stores, schools, or libraries in their community. The basis for most challenges is moral reasons. For illustration, check the list of the most challenged books in 2011; offensive language and sexual explicitness top the reasons for ‘banning.’ I trust the irony of including Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” at #7, escapes no one.
- In socialism, Banned books were read in secret, if you could get a hold of them; samizdat works were copied by hand and distributed in secret, person-to-person. Growing up in those times and enjoying free access to libraries, I had no clue banned books, not to mention samizdat, existed. Imagine my shock at learning of the practice after the Velvet Revolution. I can’t imagine any books, other than those inciting to violence or racial hatred, be banned in Slovakia today.
- In the U.S., banned books are readily available on the market. Such is the beauty of American capitalism.
* I recently read about letters that writers and other intellectuals would address in the 1980’s to Communist Party censors requesting they clearly define the limits on what can or cannot be published. The writers were just looking out for themselves: an article could pass a censor one day and land you in jail the next.
Image credit: DML East Branch