Collier’s Weekly: Book Bans Are Back, and as Backwards as Ever

Pittsburgher Jesse Andrews’ young-adult novel “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” has made the ALA’s top 10 list of most challenged books, as part of an embarrassing new censorship movement.


Pittsburgh is freshly represented on another national ranking — but I’m afraid this one isn’t exactly good news. This time, it’s part of a fresh revival of a tired, futile effort: Book banning.

The young-adult novel “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” set in Pittsburgh and written by Schenley High grad Jesse Andrews (and adapted into a film) appeared for the first time on the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books in school and public libraries. It’s part of a new, particularly dispiriting wave of pearl-clutching outrage directed at books that dare to actually depict reality; Andrews’ novel has been caught up in this depressing wave, targeted for coarse language and discussions of sexuality.

If that’s the standard, I have bad news for those offended: Have you heard about, y’know, every novel written since the Civil War? Most of them have curse words and sex.

(And seriously: swear words? What is this, a “Leave it to Beaver” episode?)

Andrews in January responded to the non-controversy on Twitter: “I used to find these attempts to ban ‘Me & Earl & the Dying Girl’ funny, just because they were so ridiculous,” he wrote. “It’s a potty-mouthed book about how hard it is to process pain and grief, and how hard it is to grow up. The idea that this harms anyone is beyond stupid.”

But, Andrews cautioned, “I’m not laughing anymore. These book bans are picking up momentum. All around the country, fearful purity-obsessed parents and opportunistic politicians are making kids’ lives worse.”

Andrews is correct to note the political connection; some public figures have championed these efforts, appealing to that old campaign-ad standby, moral outrage, to score some points. Now, I assure you: No politician cares what books your teen is reading, they’re just pandering. But the imprimatur of debate in serious chambers has added undue legitimacy to these efforts.

When books are challenged, much of the debate surrounds language, sexual content and frank discussions of sensitive subject matter. The ALA is quick to point out, however, that the majority of the challenged books are either by or about Black and/or LGBTQ people, including all of this year’s top five. Among the subject matter of those books: explorations of sexuality and gender, discrimination and racism.

Make no mistake: The outrage over these books has nothing to do with naughty words or sexual acts. (If that was the actual matter at hand, Stephen King would be the most challenged author each and every year.) These books are targeted because they might impart knowledge of the world, as it actually is, to young people; this is an attempt not to shield young minds from obscenity but to blind young eyes against reality.

Here’s the thing, though: These challenges are an exercise in futility. Since the moment teenagers were freed from daily farm duty in the 19th century, they have found new and novel ways of accessing content they aren’t allowed to take in at home. Whether we’re talking about heavy-metal records, violent video games or Toni Morrison — and, seriously, who the hell objects to Toni Morrison — young people will find ways to access whatever we try to keep out of their hands.

This was true in the analog ’80s and ’90s, and it’s even more true now. Any enterprising adolescent with an internet connection can get any book ever published on their device without much effort.

(By the way, did you know there’s a free app that allows you to check out e-books through your local library, completely free? Just thought I’d mention it.)

They can also access a flood of far more objectionable material through those same devices. You should be so lucky as to have your kids learn about the world through literature; they’re gonna learn one way or another, and most other methods are a lot less illuminating.

It hardly bears pointing out, but there has never been a moment in history where book bans were a force for good. The modern history of civic censorship begins with the Puritans and runs straight through to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, with a big pit stop in Nazi Germany; it is a tool not of concerned caregivers but of violent fascists. History always looks back on such efforts with shame; it is a cudgel used exclusively by societies looking to restrict (and eventually eliminate) freedom.

Simply put: The people banning the books are never the good guys.

While the current movement is, for various reasons, a good bit scarier than your everyday outrage, we can take solace in the knowledge that these efforts invariably backfire. The publicity granted by book-ban efforts does little but raise the profile of the books in question; most books under heavy fire see a bump in sales as a result. After an anti-semitic effort challenged the inclusion of the Pultizer-winning graphic novel “Maus” in a high-school curriculum, sales rose 753 percent in a week.

So, then, book bans are futile, wrong-headed and sure to backfire.

Maybe the easily outraged could put their efforts into something a bit more constructive?

Categories: Collier’s Weekly