Books don’t really get banned anymore in the United States. Yes, we still hear of challenges. Perhaps a mother requests that her child’s school library not carry a certain book anymore. Or maybe a group of parents will ask a school board to take certain selections off the school reading list. These are clearly serious cases of censorship where some individuals try to deny all individuals access to a book of which they do not approve. But there are few cases where the challenge is accepted or where we hear of a large-scale ban on a book. Usually the book is still available in other places, through other avenues.
Most Americans, or at least most readers would, I think, respond to the majority of these cases with outrage. We take our rights very seriously and do not like to hear anyone challenging our freedom of speech. Even if we personally do not agree with the sentiments expressed in a book, even if we think the book wrong or dangerous, we worry about facing censorship ourselves if we allow another voice to be silenced. So we take a stand.
At the same time, many of us are constantly engaged in smaller acts of censorship, or what we might think of as “curating” or “mediating.” Every time a teacher chooses books to place in the classroom, that teacher has decided what books her students “should” read, which books are “valuable,” and which books are not. Every time an instructor creates a syllabus and has to winnow down “British Romanticism” or “the African American novel” to eight or fewer works, they have again made a value judgment: these are the books that are the most valuable, the most representative, the most interesting, the most, the most… Every time a library chooses how to spend their limited funding they are again determining what access their patrons have to books.
There is, of course, no way to get around these moments. A classroom library has only so much shelf space. A semester has only so much time for students to read. A library has only so much money to spend on books. But in these silent moments, choices are made. “This book is too dark for my students,” says the teacher, speaking for maybe thirty or more children and their reading needs. Or “This one addresses drugs or has violence or features a curse word. I don’t think it’s wholesome,” and so decides what morals her students should value–sobriety or peacefulness or a clean mouth.
“These books best represent ‘Shakespeare in America'” says the college professor, and so creates a cycle in which her students will now frequently cite these same books as the most representative or most interesting. They will, if having to teach Shakespeare themselves, probably put some of these same works on their syllabi, now impressing even more students with the idea that these works are the most valuable. Cycles like these are how works end up canonized. People are familiar with them. They’re the ones always being taught. Therefore they must be the best.
The majority of these choices remain invisible to the outside viewer. Few people know why some books ended up on the shelf or on the reading list and why others did not. Few people ask why an instructor chose a certain work for the class to read. And few people ever ask why a certain work is missing. “Why do you have C. S. Lewis but not Philip Pullman?” seems an arbitrary question. Why should the teacher have Philip Pullman on her classroom shelf? Why not any other author? Besides, the teacher is underpaid. No one expects her to have all the books ever written. She can’t afford it.
But though the choices are invisible, they are being made and they have consequences, ones that are perhaps just as invisible. No one will ever know what would have happened if a child had been presented with a book about Ruby Bridges instead of one about dinosaurs. No one will ever know that an individual’s life was changed by reading Dante, but could have been equally been changed by Nietzsche. No one may ever know that a teacher considered the Ruby Bridges book, but worried it was too politically charged, might get her students worked up about injustice and equality and activism–better to play it safe with dinosaurs. Everyone loves dinosaurs.
The choices, of course, must be made. No one has time or space or money for every book. But sometimes it pays to question those choices. What is being put on our shelves and why? What are we teaching our students and why? And what have we left out–and why?