Who Controls What Books You Can Read?

Someone gave Margaret Atwood a flamethrower.

The gray-haired author has become a patron saint for a certain kind of dystopian apocalypticism. No protest is complete these days without at least a few women in the red robes and white bonnets of The Handmaid’s Tale, her clouded portrait of an authoritarian society built around controlling conscience and fertility. “The Handmaid’s Tale has been banned many times—sometimes by whole countries, such as Portugal and Spain in the days of Salazar and the Francoists,” Atwood notes, “sometimes by school boards, sometimes by libraries.”

All of which made her the perfect subject for a stunt to raise money for PEN America, a nonprofit that fights literary censorship: She took a blowtorch to a custom-made fireproof edition of her most famous work, which would later be put up for auction by Sotheby’s.

Book burnings have long been popular with those who would seize and hold power, from the Catholic Church to Josef Stalin. Kings, fascists, and communists alike have warmed their hands over literary bonfires. But rarely in 2022 America do book bans take the incendiary form of our Ray Bradbury–fueled fever dreams.

Yet controversy over book bans has flared up nonetheless, with local and state elections won or lost over which books will be stocked in libraries or taught in schools—a newly invigorated front in a long-running culture war.

The American Library Association (ALA), another anti-censorship organization, keeps lists of what it calls “challenged books”—books that a person or group has tried to remove from or restrict access to in schools or libraries. A “banned book” is one where that removal is successful.

By the ALA’s reckoning, challenges and bans are way up, setting a 20-year record. The organization recorded 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials in 2021, targeting more than 1,500 different titles. The list is far from exhaustive, assembled as it is from media reports and from folks who contact the organization directly. This produces an odd chicken-and-egg problem, where the more politically agitated people are about book bannings, the more incidents they will report as book bannings, and the more there will appear to be.

The books that make the ALA annual top 10 list vary from year to year, but they comprise a consistent mix: classics that deal with mature themes—Beloved and the Bible—books that contain slurs or other now-contentious words or depictions of race—Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird—books that touch on sex or gender from what is intended to be an age-appropriate perspective—I Am Jazz and anything by Raina Telgemeier—books that smack of the occult—the Harry Potter series and Bridge to Terabithia—and books that are very clearly by and for adults—Fifty Shades of Gray.

The ALA list suggests book banners lean right—with an increasing emphasis on books with queer themes or characters, for example—though book challenges come from across the spectrum of political opinion and aesthetic preference. It’s debatable whether the list’s bias is an artifact of the collectors’ concerns or simply a reflection of an underlying reality.

“Banned books” is a vague category, like “cancel culture” or “obscenity.” At the terrifying top of the hierarchy are true book bans, enforced by the state—the kind that inspires the government-sponsored conflagrations described above, especially those designed to suppress political dissent or erase inconvenient histories.

The removal of books from public libraries or public school libraries is a step below those, though it is also government censorship of a kind, since the books are removed by public employees, often at the behest of politicians. So too with curriculum battles: these fall far short of a state-ordered book burning, but they are too often driven by the same censorial impulse and smallness of mind. They are less troubling than outright bans, since they tend to be localized, applied primarily to children, and publicized in ways that make it possible for parents to hedge against them. But that does not mean they are unobjectionable.

There are always new fronts in the book wars. The end of May saw a bizarre extension of the school library book ban into the private sector, one that was clearly unconstitutional, politically motivated, and ultimately pointless. Two Virginia Republicans (a congressional candidate and a member of the House of Delegates) asked a court to place a restraining order on the sale of two books, requiring that purchasers be carded: Gender Queera graphic novel about nonbinary identity, and—somewhat inexplicably—the second book in a series that can best be described as faerie porn, A Court of Mist and Fury. The books have very little in common other than the fact that both deal with sex. But as anyone who has ever stood agog in the romance aisle of a Barnes & Noble knows, they are hardly the only two books to do so. Nor is Barnes & Noble the only venue where one might acquire such books, though the school board of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools already voted to remove Gender Queer from school libraries as well.

Nearly all of the books mentioned in this issue are, in fact, available to motivated American readers. “Let’s hope we don’t reach the stage of wholesale book burnings, as in Fahrenheit 451,” said Atwood, her blowtorch still smoking. “But if we do, let’s hope some books will prove unburnable—that they will travel underground, as prohibited books did in the Soviet Union.”

But there are more ways for governments to control what people can read than immediately identifiable book bans. Adults may still struggle to get access to books for all kinds of reasons related to government, from intellectual property fights to local zoning to incarceration.

There are also private entities who practice a form of book banning. While this form is the least worrying from a legal point of view—companies and individuals should have the right to do business with whomever they like—it is still troubling from a cultural perspective, and it seems to be on the rise. It includes self-censorship by authors and publishers as well as gatekeeping by booksellers.

All of these less blatant barriers are explored in the pages that follow, along with their more traditional counterparts. It’s worth noting that the one book we were unable to obtain in our research for this issue is a memoir that remains unpublished due to a gag order by the Securities and Exchange Commission, a final reminder not to be too distracted by the blowtorch while other books are being quietly snuffed out.

We hope this issue of Reason will serve as both a cautionary tale and a fun summer reading list, because in many cases a “banned” book is also a popular book. A mere whiff of the censor’s smoke can send hordes of curious novelty seekers off to acquire copies. Not all will stand the literary test of time, but the Holy Bible and faerie porn each have their place. Perhaps that place is poolside?

Romeo and Juliet
William Shakespeare
Sarah Skwire

Leviathan
Thomas Hobbes
Stephanie Slade

Lady Chatterley’s Lover
DH Lawrence
Ronald Bailey

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
Dr. Seuss
Nick Gillespie

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury
Peter Suderman

Howl and Other Poems
Allen Ginsberg
Fiona Harrigan

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee
Jason Russell ‎

The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov
Jesse Walker

Slaughterhouse-Five
Kurt Vonnegut
Eric Boehm

Mouse
Art Spiegelman
Brian Doherty

Wisegoy
Nicholas Pileggi
Nancy Rommelmann

Beloved
Toni Morrison
Robby Soave

The Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie
Liz Wolfe

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
J.K. Rowling
Natalie Dowzicky

The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future
Dav Pilkey
Katherine Mangu-Ward

I Am Jazz
Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
Scott Shackford

Blood in the Water
Heather Ann Thompson
CJ Ciaramella

When Harry Became Sally
Ryan T. Anderson
Elizabeth Nolan Brown

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Christian Britschgi

This article originally appeared in print under the headline “Who Controls What Books You Can Read?”.

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