If 2014 proves typical, more than 700 Americans will try to get a book pulled off the shelves of a public or school library this year — based on the 18,000 complaints the American Library Association has recorded since 1990. In a way, it’s an exercise of American freedom — the freedom to petition with grievances. It deserves respect. But when it comes to books on library shelves, most librarians — and I think most Americans — give priority to the freedom to read. That’s why we have Banned Books Week, which started Sunday.
Sometimes libraries will make compromises, but the guiding principle is to let each reader make his or her decisions about what to read. Many controversies involve children’s access to books that include sexuality, racism, violence or rough language, and as a parent and grandparent, I can think of lots of things it would be disturbing for children to read at various stages of maturity. But I also think people need to be disturbed sometimes in order to grow and to understand the world around them. Better to be disturbed by a book than to stumble naively into the challenges of teen-age and adult life. And if a child’s life is already disturbed, a well-written book can be therapeutic.
Sure, parents do well to be involved with their children’s reading choices. And if schools put controversial literature on reading lists, they should give families plenty of options. But do help children learn how to be wise and active selectors of their own reading, and don’t take away the options of other families.
Still, if classes are going to discuss literature in detail, the students need to have read the same items. For generations, reading Romeo and Juliet was a standard requirement. Certainly the language is polite, but the story is about two young and lustful teen-agers from violent families who run away and ultimately kill themselves. What’s not disturbing about that? No one is saying the authors of controversial books are modern Shakespeares, but they do write in language and context that young readers can more readily understand. Teachers need leeway to use modern work as Shakespeare has been used, and some of that work is going to be disturbing.
Many of the debates in our country are about the trade-offs with freedoms, and it would be foolish to deny that bad things can result from reading. It’s just that libraries exist because Americans believe the sum result of reading is greatly to the good. And our national tradition of individual freedom leaves it up to each of us to make the read-or-not-to-read call for ourselves.