By Samantha Wahl, Contributing Writer
It’s odd to think that in a country as proud of its freedom of speech as the United States is, there is still such thing as a “banned book”. And yet there is: in 2016, the Office for Intellectual Freedom saw 323 reported cases of books being challenged in schools and libraries.
The key phrase there is “reported cases”. In many places around the country, books are banned quietly. This is not illegal, as there are no laws saying that institutions must report banning a book. As a result, the American Library Association (ALA) only knows about cases that people voluntarily report to them. Surveys suggest that the actual number of book bans in the U.S. could be as much as ninety-seven percent higher than the officially reported figure.
Enter Banned Books Week. It was founded during an uptick in book bans during the eighties, by a coalition of publishing and library organizations. They took it upon themselves to publicize books that had been banned, and celebrate the American peoples’ “freedom to read” without censorship. This year, Banned Books Week was celebrated from September 24 until September 30. UMass Dartmouth’s own Claire T. Carney Library put up a display of historically banned books for the occasion. Similar displays were assembled in bookstores and libraries all over the country. Banned Books Week is a time for rebellion, but also reflection; by facing books that have historically been considered inappropriate, we can begin to unpack taboos and preconceptions.
Historically, books have been banned for discussing topics such as racism, institutionalized prejudice, violence, and sexual identity: as Alyssa Nicolini put it in 2015, “topics that don’t yield easy answers”. 2016 was no different: of the ten most-challenged books this year, eight were challenged for including content about sexuality. (Five of those were challenged for “LGBT content”.) Cases of censorship like these are at the heart of why Banned Books Week is important. As the ALA puts it: “Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others”.
Over the course of American history, institutions have sometimes felt pressure to insulate people from difficult or controversial ideas. But the spirit of Banned Books Week is to celebrate the ultimate futility of those efforts. It is a reminder of the inability to censor literature, and with it, our thinking; a reminder of the liberty that comes with living outside the bounds of censorship. There is immense freedom in not being told whose voices we are allowed to hear. Banned Books Week may technically be over, but your freedom to read can be celebrated all year long. Why not step out and pick up a banned book?