With at least a decade between us and the last time a book was completely banned from an Iowa library, Banned Book Week — which starts this week — is more a gentle prod than a call to action.
It’s a chance to reaffirm our belief in the right to free expression. A reminder that our commitment to that right is never tested in easy or uncomplicated ways.
And, although this might seem counterintuitive, it’s also a chance to practice what we preach — to give full hearing and respect to those who would challenge public and school libraries’ inclusion of certain books in their collections.
As Carroll Public Library Director Kelly Fischbach likes to say: You don’t really believe in a right unless you believe in it for your worst enemy.
We can’t celebrate Banned Book Week by making demons out of people who are simply standing up for their beliefs.
Does that mean that I agree? Not one bit. It seems most Iowans don’t, either.
Only 15 books have been challenged in Iowa public and school libraries since 2005, according to the Iowa Library Association.
Fischbach, chairwoman of the association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, said it’s the kind of thing that might happen only once in a librarian’s career.
There are some usual suspects. The true-life tale of a same-sex penguin couple and their family seems to always rise to the top of the challenged list.
The rest is an odd sort of mix.
There are classic works, such as Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien. Then there are books you’ve never heard of. Most often, books are challenged by parents or other adults with only the best of intentions. They’re worried that a book isn’t age-appropriate, that it contains offensive words or references to sex or drugs.
“The first question we usually ask people is, ‘Have you read the whole book,” Fischbach told me Thursday. Often, the answer is, “No.”
They may have read a paragraph or a couple of pages. They might have heard about the book being challenged somewhere else.
The most recent challenge came just this month — it was Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” (“That’s been on the AP reading list for-ev-er,” Fischbach said.)
But every once in a while, a parent will question a book the librarians haven’t read, either — that wasn’t reviewed, or was a book fair freebie, and included in the collection without careful consideration.
That’s why challenges are taken so seriously — with a committee convening to read the book in question and discuss whether it truly belongs in the collection.
It can be interesting to look at the titles that have been challenged over the years, Fischbach said. It shows how our attitudes change.
Books that make parents uncomfortable now might not in a generation or two. That’s one of the reasons we’ve got to be diligent.
“As a librarian, it’s our responsibility to stand up for books, because everybody should have the right to choose for themselves,” she said.
“I think it’s important that people realize the right to read is unique in the United States,” she told me. “It’s in the First Amendment.
“If you take it for granted, people might really restrict what you’ve got the right to read.”
Or your right to express unpopular views — even if done with the best of intentions.
So this week, let’s celebrate our right to free expression as the messy, discomforting, enlightening, thrilling and fundamental right that it is.
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