Back in February, The Daily Princetonian’s podcast Daybreak interviewed English Professor Anne Cheng on the banning of books, namely Toni Morrison’s works, which primarily focus on People of Color and issues of racism. The episode was driven by the rise in efforts to ban books across the country: the American Library Association (ALA) recently announced an “unprecedented” 330 reports of book challenges from last fall, amounting to 1,597 individual books being challenged in total for 2021.
In response to this trend, last week the New York Public Library (NYPL) set out efforts to make commonly banned books available for free. Calling it the “Books For All” initiative, the NYPL promises readers aged 13 and older access to commonly banned books through the NYPL app. There are no book fines or wait times; you only need a library card, and you receive access to the books until the end of May.
President of NYPL Tony Marx opened his letter regarding this initiative with an emphasis on the library’s mission, which is “rooted in the principles of free and open access to knowledge, information, and all perspectives — in essence, the right to read.” Marx makes a highly important point: in preserving the right to access these books — the right to read all books — we are safeguarding education and intellectual growth.
The right to read all books goes beyond the personal feelings one may have for certain books, or whether or not one “agrees” with certain books. It is the very process of agreeing or disagreeing with ideas presented in a book — recognizing the dynamics of the issues books present and understanding their role in different contexts — that is important to have. Similarly, the way we frame these issues when teaching these books to others is also significant.
Books give people the opportunity to think critically, and to examine issues relevant in today’s society. They generate much-needed discourse about problems impacting a range of communities in a variety of ways.
Considering possible reasons behind the push to ban books, it seems that comfort is a large component of such efforts. However, as Prof. Cheng said in her interview, “nobody learns anything without discomfort [...] to be afraid of discomfort is to be afraid of learning anything new.” Ignoring the subject matter of these books is not beneficial to individuals, especially younger generations, who are learning and having conversations about the world around them and the issues that remain rooted in our economic, social, and political systems. For example, banning books about issues of racism or topics of gender and sexuality does not suddenly make those matters or their history vanish into thin air or disappear from our lives. They will continue to exist, whether we’d like to see them in writing or not.
On top of this, justifying the banning of a book by claiming that that book makes readers “uncomfortable” assumes that all readers will be made uncomfortable by the same content, which is not the case. Instead, book bans only serve to ease one group’s discomfort, as evidenced by the fact that recent surveys by the ALA illustrate that a “loud local minority” usually drives efforts to ban books.
Perhaps some supporters of book bans, especially parents, may argue that they are capable of teaching their children in ways other than exposing them to “inappropriate” books. But it is important to consider that, with the internet being at the fingertips of many young children, it is likely that most have already been exposed to “inappropriate” topics on social media platforms, where those topics are likely to be discussed in a less nuanced and thoughtful way.
Not everyone is represented in and interacts with the subject matter of these books in the same way. This is especially important for issues of race, gender, and sexuality, where books may provide people with the resources they need to navigate their own identity and think critically about the issues that impact them. Furthermore, it is only fair to allow people to react to these matters in their own way, rather than shield them from those moments of self-discovery.
A myriad of books in the world today capture both the good and the bad of life, from joy and accomplishment to death and grief. Having the opportunity to freely read these books and thoughtfully explore the ideas they express allows us to come away with meaningful, valuable insights about ourselves and the world around us.
Gisele Bisch is a first-year from the North Shore of Oʻahu (Hawai‘i) who plans to concentrate in Anthropology on the Sociocultural Track. She can be reached at email@example.com.