|Real book banning, Berlin, 1933|
Seventy-eight years ago, in 1933, Josef Goebbels presided over the burning of over twenty thousand books in Berlin's Opernplatz, saying, "....The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is at an end."
In 1559 the Roman Catholic Church issued its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, to protect the faithful by preventing them from reading works with moral and theological errors.
In 1557 the English Crown stemmed dissent by chartering the Stationer's Company—a printer's guild with control over copyright, the ability to restrict the number of presses, and the right to seize books that violated the standards of content set by the church and the state.
The current Iranian government limits or suppresses entirely the publication of content related to women's rights, democracy, freedom of speech, and pornography, among other topics.
These are all examples of true book banning. What we have in the United States is not the same thing. The only books I can think of that are banned, in the legal sense of the word and by our government, are publications containing child pornography.
What we do have in the U.S. are individual institutions (both public and private) that refuse to carry books they don't think are appropriate for their students or customers. We have middle schools and high schools that don't want to teach particular books or own copies in their libraries. We have Christian bookstores that refuse to stock fantasy or anything that smacks of witchcraft. We have thoughtful parents who have read and are offended by certain books petitioning their schools not to buy them, and we have narrow-minded, careless parents who've never even read the books making willy-nilly lists of things they don't want their children to see. Whether or not you or I agree with any particular choice these institutions have made, and whether or not all those parents and school boards are in fact misguided, they're rightfully exercising their freedom of speech and freedom of association. In America, we have a constitutional right to be meatheads.
In France, there is a central curriculum in schools, set by the state. Everyone follows precisely the same course of studies, devised by the French Ministry of National Education. Every student reads the same books, selected by the government. Vraiment ridicule. In the U.S., local school districts have freedom to create their own curriculum. They also have the right not to teach whatever they want. Parents have the right to petition for or against books.
So let's not get all hot under the collar about the challenging of children's and young-adult books in this country. Let's celebrate it. I say this because every example I've read about during this book-banning week is not a case of true banning or censorship. Every case is paradoxically an example of freedom—of speech, of association, of local educational autonomy. These are all good things in the grand scheme of liberty, which I personally hold dearer than some random Missouri school district's quarantined copies of Slaughterhouse Five.
The rest of us should exercise our freedom of speech by supporting the so-called "banned" books that we love. I'll do my part right here: Slaughterhouse Five is an astounding example of literary form beautifully serving function, and I think every teen should read it if only to make an emotional connection to the bombing of Dresden in 1945.
(Thanks to Travis Jonker for causing me to think about this topic by linking to an article by Jonah Goldber in the National Review.)