Banning books

underpantsLast year Slate ran an article that, in that annoying Slate way, made it clear: the battle is won. We no longer have to fear book banning. It is a rare phenomenon, in America, at least, and true bannings—as opposed to, say, a parent opting out of reading a book on behalf of his/her child—have become rare.

Though no one seems to have numbers to support the matter, media sensations about book banning do seem to have gone down in recent years. Perhaps this is part of a general easing, though by no means a cessation, of the culture wars. No one, for instance, has pitched school uniforms as a panacea in ages. A warning label on music is a selling point now. Or maybe book banners just chilled as it became apparent the Republic could survive the all-media popularity of The Hunger Games.

Then, again, maybe we just don’t hear about it much, because the challenges so often take place at the local level. Or in other places below the radar.

Slate declared Banned Book Week a “crock.” Though a wonderful word, “crock” overstates the case, not that there’s much of a case made in an article that solely exists to stir the pot and draw the clicks. Alas, the recent story out of Texas makes clearer just what we’re in for when we let a committee make the decision on what can and cannot be read. Walker and Jenna Bush: verboten. David Duke and Adolf Hitler: okay. That isn’t necessarily a comment on the politics of the committee members. It is a comment on how committees inevitably come to make ridiculous, incomprehensible decisions.

Even in an era with a shorter list of challenges to books, Banned Book Week raises awareness of a problem. That problem? There are a lot of people out there who want to control what other people read. Not just their kids—by custom and law they have that right, anyway—but yours’ and mine, and maybe you and me, too. And they never, ever stop wanting that.

At worse, Banned Book Week is an over-reaction, a manifestation of a sort of First Amendment absolutism. But it serves a purpose, both as a warning (that book banning once roiled a lot of communities and affected a lot of people) and as a means to consolidate a hard-won victory over censorship.

The thing about the latter. . . . see, you never really win the war. You change the status quo, for awhile. But the kind of person who wants to ban The Adventures of Captain Underpants remains out there—always indignant, usually afraid, and frequently organized. Banned Book Week is a good reminder that the right to read, though at present the status quo, is no sure thing. We all face the ongoing challenge of censorship. Without attention-raising campaigns like Banned Book Week, we would face more challenges. Left unattended, censorship might grow into a crazy movement, the way mint takes over a garden.