Saturday, October 04, 2008

I Ban Books for a Living

Banned Books Week is mercifully coming to an end today. The annual event that seeks to educate the public on what titles are being suppressed in the United States is sponsored by the American Library Association. Thousands of stores and libraries across the country, including the Boulder Book Store, feature displays of "banned books" intended to rile up our customers and alert them to the outrage being perpetuated throughout the land.

I am not all that interested in the hysteria. It's not exactly Fahrenheit 451 out there. No one's snatching books out of the hands of adults. Hell, Laura Bush, first lady to the Commander-in-Chief of Intolerance, helped launch the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps my unease over making a big deal about banned books in America is because you can get anything you want, anywhere you want on the internet. Banned books are a tough sell as a piece of marketing these days. I heard a number of wise cracks as people looked at our store's display. The truth is that you can get many things that a sane society would actually ban delivered in an innocuous brown package right to your door. In today's world, how can you ban anything at a local level? It just doesn't make sense.

I first started dissenting from the banned book celebration several years ago when the word "challenged" was used instead of "banned" on many of the titles. The bookstore would get a list of "challenged" books that we could use in our displays. Many of these were books that some zealous parent in a small rural hamlet had objected to on a middle school reading list. The locals realized that the complaint wasn't worth taking up and the book remained on the school reading list. Somehow those books qualify for inclusion in Banned Book Week. To me, that's not a banned book.

Many banned or challenged books occur in schools. Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolover and Toni Morrision all make this year's list. But what is really happening? Only McCarthy's book Child of God and Morrison's Beloved were actually removed from any reading list. Kingsolver's Animal Dreams was moved from a ninth-grade reading list to the eleventh grade, while Oates' Sexy and Morrison's Bluest Eye were deemed not offensive. Even Beloved, which was removed in an A.P. English class in Louisville, Kentucky, isn't threatened with an outright ban. Two parents are asking that students get parental permission to read it.

Contrast those mild challenges with what I do everyday as a professional book banner. As the head buyer of the Boulder Book Store, I spend many days meeting with publisher sales reps deciding what books will be placed on our shelves and which ones will not enter our store. There's no committee to review my decisions. There's no oversight at all. Once I decide I don't want a book, in all likelihood that book will never make it onto our shelves.

My reasons for banning books include: the book will probably not sell; the cover is an affront to my aesthetic sensibilities; no Boulderite in their right mind will be interested in the topic; the editor was rude to me at an author dinner; I'm in a terrible, terrible mood because the rep and I haven't stopped for a lunch break.

I admit that the Boulder Book Store is not as important to literacy as a junior high school in Lake Oswego, Oregon where they actually let children read Gail Giles' Shattering Glass, albeit with the disclaimer that it contains "mature content/language." But we do have our place in the community. In fact, in a recent article about our 35th anniversary celebration the local paper called us "the city's literary heart."

I am the black in that heart, gleefully rejecting books that the reps proffer with glib phrases like, "I'll pass on that one," "Are you kidding?" "Why is that even being published?" and "Skip." Sure, I feel guilty about some of these books that I ban from the store. There were two books in particular in last week's Random House appointment that made me hesitate.

The first was David Horowitz's One Party Classroom, a sordid tale about how colleges are turning our young people into dangerous left-wing types. I almost bought it for the sake of not appearing politically biased, until the rep asked me to look up Horowitz's previous book, The Professors. That one was an expose of the 101 most dangerous academics in America. Did they bring weapons into the classroom? Were they convicted sexual predators? No. They just made the mistake of disagreeing with Horowitz's addled political values. They were liberals like Horowitz once was. Well, it turns out I didn't buy The Professors for the store and no one seemed to notice. We didn't get a single special order or complaint. In One Party Classroom, Horowitz names "the worst school in America." Maybe it will be the University of Colorado. That would make me lift the ban.

The second and more guilt-inducing book was Best African American Essays: 2009 edited by Debra J. Dickerson. Bantam paperbacks is launching a new series of African American essays and also short stories. I opted to buy five of the short story collection but skipped the essays. In part because stories outsell essays by a margin of 5 to 1. Also, I wasn't sure how I felt about the series as a whole. Fifteen years ago we used to have sections or displays of African American fiction, Native American fiction and gay fiction. Now, many of those titles seem to succeed in the "fiction" section. Readers seem more willing to accept the diversity of fiction out there without wanting it labeled. In fact, we've had customers get upset when those titles appeared in special sections. I'll be interested to see how Bantam's collection of short stories does this year.

Now, most of my fellow bookstore buyers would not say that they are banning books from their stores. To say that "We are carefully selecting titles for our customers" is one way to spin our disdain for over ninety percent of the books that are published each year. My favorite highfalutin term is that we are curators. Instead of debating about exhibits featuring Mattisse and Picasso, we argue over whether to face out Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks.

Banned Books Week takes us away from the real threats facing books. The annual event started in 1982, before the internet existed. If a book wasn't carried by your town's library, it wasn't easy to find. That's not the case anymore thanks to the world wide web. The new threats are more insidious. Truly controversial books are having a hard time finding major publishing houses and also of getting media exposure. While we fret over one parent's unsuccessful attempt to remove copies of Harry Potter from the school libraries in Gwinnett County, Georgia, important books are not being published at all. Does anyone really believe that kids are deprived of their Harry Potter fix?

Naomi Wolfe's End of America and Vincent Bugliosi's The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder both were bypassed by major publishing houses in America and have received scant review attention in the nation's newspapers. Those authors were famous enough to find other avenues for their books. (Wolfe was published by Chelsea Green, and Bugliosi by Vanguard Press.) What about authors that are less fortunate? It's impossible to ban or even challenge a book that can't get published.

I must admit that I don't really have a problem with a parent challenging a book that their child is being asked to read in school. Reading about these school challenges is almost heartwarming because so many of them fail for the right reasons. School boards debate the merits of books, prosecutors read Toni Morrison, and they almost always decide that the books should stay in the library or the curriculum despite the parent's objection. It's called a dialogue. It's what open societies do to establish acceptable mores.

Is that so terrible? Most people would not object to their ninth-grade child being assigned one of the great American novels of the 20th century. But what if that novel was Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint? I don't think I'd be comfortable with a giggling 14-year-old asking me to explain the literary merits of a scene in which the protagonist is masturbating with a refrigerated piece of meat. I'd probably challenge it before I could ever get into that awkward conversation.

I would ban my own favorite novel.


Gail Giles said...

Thanks for the mention. I'm not sure, but I think Oswego did manage to kick me to the curb, but no matter. The reason that banning counts for us YA writers and other juvenile writers is a big one. Banning actually helps some of our sales. If the kids can't get the book in the library, it must have the good stuff in it and they go buy it--except for those that can't afford to. Unfortunately the friends they could borrow from usually can't afford to go get it either and unless they live within walking distance from the public library--it's affording the bus ride or getting someone to give them a ride.

Translation: Too much trouble--we'll watch tv instead. Yes, that's what we want them to do.

Book banning in the schools is a cruel form a economic discrimination. The really bad part? Usually it's the wealthier parents that run to the school board to get the book pulled from the shelf. Let's make sure those poorer children keep watching the television.

Book banning in schools is one parent's way to keep other parent's from deciding what their own children can read. I support any parent that doesn't want his or her child to read Shattering GLass, but I don't support their right to decide that for every other child in the school.

By the way--love Boulder (my favorite cuz lives there and love those indie book stores. Keep up the good work.

Gail Giles

jkd said...

I have to agree with Gail - it's a matter of the public sphere vs. the private sphere. There's a price of admission in the latter that isn't just about the cost of the book - a kid whose parents would challenge or ban a book isn't going to be giving them free reign to order and receive from Amazon.

I agree that book banning/challenging isn't as bad or pervasive as it once was but that doesn't mean it isn't a pervasive threat. The first lady might have kicked off the National Book Festival but the current Vice Presidential nominee for the GOP casually inquired about the procedures for mass book-banning during her term as small-town mayor. The librarian, of course, was suitably aghast and the request didn't go forward - but that's the point. There should be social sanction for that kind of behavior, and keeping it in the public eye with Banned Books week is a good way to do so.

lady t said...

Interesting post,Kash,but you're wrong to call yourself a book banner. There's a world of difference between choosing not to carry a certain book in your store for business reasons and choosing to decide for others what they or their children should be reading.

For one thing,if you had a customer who came in and wanted one of those books that weren't in your stock,due to your knowledge of what sells and what doesn't,and asked you to order it for him/her,you wouldn't say no,right?

You'd special order it for that person but wouldn't have to add it to your shelves. For you,it's simply business,the way a local grocery store might not have a fancy brand of coffee since the folks in the area haven't made any demands for it or they did have that particular one when it first hit the marketplace and it didn't sell.

Real book banners are motivated to keep certain books away(especially from young people)in order to prevent certain ideas from spreading and challenging their pre-existing notions of the way things work. You're right that the book banning/challenging situations that come up these days aren't quite as dramatic as the courtroom battles to teach The Origin of Species or allow the export ofJames Joyce's Ulysses to not be a federal offense,but past is prologue,as another of the current VP candidates stated recently.

I do agree with Gail and JKD that class warfare does come into play here-there are many people who either have little or no access to the internet and therefore,may not be able to get the book they wanted if their nearest library doesn't have or can't get it for them.

I'm all for parents deciding for their own children what they should be allowed to read and for age appropriate book selections as well. It's when folks step over that line and want to oppose upon their neighbor's kids their own personal set of boundaries that we have to hold up that red sign and say "STOP!"

Wench said...

I checked some stuff out of my library that *nobody* my age should have been reading. Robert Heinlen's non-juvie sci-fi still leads the pack in mature content - polygamy, incest, canibalism... Sometimes I think it made me a better person, and sometimes I think it took me decades to get normal social ethics straight in my head. Either way I would not let any kids of mine read the stuff I read prior to age 15, and even then not without serious discussion and analysis.

Nick Coulter said...

Wench - I've been thinking about this a lot; my little boy is only 2 1/2 and I've been wondering about somne of the things I read when I was younger. I think I've concluded if it was okay for me, and I'm fairly well adjusted - at least enough to be his father! - then there's no good reason to prevent him reading it. If he wants to talk about it then we can. A biggie for me - and I appreciate not so many will share this - is the Narnia books. I've been quite anti them in recent years for the not so subtle religious propaganda and dubious messages about little kids dying and being glad to do so. But then, I didn't get it at the time and loved the books when I was little as great adventures. Read on, my boy! And make your own mind up as you grow. Like we did.