Book Banning and Cancer

Woah there, I just used both the bb and c words in one breathless sentence. And it’s not even a sentence! It’s a breathless phrase of a title! But wait! Before you write me off as a complete liberal twit, please read on.

So, book banning, or lobbying to have books banned or unbanned, is a big touchy, subject in libraries. In fact, a few weeks ago was Banned Book Week, and American Library Association disseminated reams of articles on the subject: what books were banned, where, for what reasons, what are the steps taken to remove these bans, how we must all be vigilant and fight the good fight, so on and so forth. All well and good.

But it’s something else that got me thinking. One of the criteria that librarians insist on when somebody wants to ban a book is to demand that he first read it. To me, this sounds eminently reasonable. In fact, I’m actually caught a bit off-guard by people want to ban books they haven’t read.

OK, now you’re definitely writing me off as a liberal twit. But please, read on.

Why does this strike me as so reasonable? After all, when somebody protests, say, nuclear energy, I don’t say to them, “Well, have you been exposed to radiation? No? You haven’t? Well, then don’t come protesting until you have. In fact, don’t come until you’ve developed cancer or something, OK? NEXT!”

Is this not the equivalent of “have you read this book? Are you sure it actually caused you umbrage?” Maybe some would say that it is not the same because insisting on people having read the objectionable book ensures that they actually object to something that is there. That is, it’s the equivalent of making sure there’s really a nuclear generator in the backyard before protesting against its presence.

However, I don’t think most people object to the objective, factual things in books. That is, they don’t stridently raise their voices to say, “There’s a character named M. in this novel, and I don’t like that!” If this were the case, and there is, in fact, no character named M. in the book, then making would-be objectors read the tome would resolve the dispute. I would argue that this is not the crux of most attempts to ban books. Instead, the fervor to ban books revolves around interpretations of the particular books, e.g. “This character named M. offends my belief system. He poses a danger to [name some precious thing here], and therefore I want it to be banned.” In these cases, insisting that a person read the book is not going to change his mind on what his belief system is, whether that system can reasonably be said to be in conflict with whatever message the book contains, and certainly not whether such beliefs were reasonable in the first place. In short, reading a book is not going to result in him dropping his objection to it. At most, it raises the costs to efforts to ban books — something along the line of “You want to protest? OK, but you have to fill out this long form and stand in line first.”

So why do we insist? Why do we feel so just in insisting?

(OK, if you’ve made it this far, you can now write me off as a twit. But did you feel that if you didn’t make it this far, you were behaving outrageously for doing so? Am I so reasonable to insist that you do one before making a judgement on the other?)

PS. For the record, I’m not in favor of book banning.

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