What’s a public library to do when a patron offers to donate a copy of Bob Woodward’s recent bestseller Fear, an account of dysfunction in the Trump White House? Why, it politely declines the offer, of course.
“We have other Trump books,” said Donna Crocker, director of the Morgan County Public Library in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
That decision was reversed this week, explained Connie Perry, the library’s president of trustees, who noted, “The book has been accepted — in fact, two of them.”
The timing of the reversal seems fitting, considering the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week kicks off Sunday, Sept. 23, to shed light on “efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books” in order to “draw national attention to the harms of censorship.”
Put simply, if we can’t rely on our local librarian to offer a comprehensive array reading material, where else can we go? Even U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — not exactly the most impartial — understands the importance of an open exchange of ideas in a democratic society.
“More than a few institutions have been unwilling to provide a forum for their students to discuss serious policy matters that affect our country,” said DeVos earlier this week at a Constitution Day event in Philadelphia. “I can and have found other forums, but what about students who cannot?”
Granted, DeVos was speaking on behalf of conservative students who have been restricted from speaking out at some American universities and colleges; one wonders if she would be equally supportive of liberal voices. Still, there’s no arguing with her general premise: “We’re best off when we’re able to sit down and talk about things that we may agree on or disagree on.”
Banned Book Week shares that principle. A representative democracy simply does not work when its citizens’ access to information and literature is limited. As an English teacher in a Connecticut public high school, I’m proud to say our state has a rather impressive record of upholding this standard. At least that’s my observation after three decades of teaching here.
Of the American Library Association’s top 100 most banned or challenged books between 2000 and 2009, I have taught and continue to teach at least 10 — classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Brave New World, among others. I know that most English teachers in the state also teach such books.
To be sure, certain titles are still challenged or de-emphasized in Connecticut schools. The Manchester school board ultimately retained The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 2008 following criticism regarding its theme and language. The Brookfield school board heard complaints about sex and language in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in 2011 before deciding to keep it in school while allowing students to conscientiously opt out of reading it. And Mystic Middle School put Animal Farm on a “secondary reading list” last year in order to align its primary curriculum with the Common Core State Standards.
In sum, while certain titles in Connecticut schools are periodically questioned, school officials have maintained an overall commitment to freedom of information for students. Parents can always opt their kids out of reading certain books and alternatives can be provided, but those cases are the exceptions to the rules of openness and broad-based learning.
So how do you plan to celebrate Banned Book Week? If you’re anywhere near Manchester, you can visit the public library on 586 Main St. to create a portrait of yourself with your favorite banned book. The photos, taken on Tuesday, Sept. 25, and Thursday, Sept. 27, between 6 and 8 p.m., will be made into posters that you can pick up later.
Or, you could always get on the waiting list to check out Bob Woodward’s Fear from the Morgan County Library in West Virginia. But expect to wait a while.
After the library’s initial decision not to accept the book became a public controversy, many more people wanted to read it, said the library’s president, demonstrating the perpetual irony of banned books: Whenever a text is targeted for censorship, the book ultimately becomes more popular after it is censored.
Happy Banned Book Week!
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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