What Are the Book Banners Afraid Of?

What Are the Book Banners Afraid Of?

They are afraid of readers—especially young readers—learning the truth about humans, about American history, about, perhaps, their own lives.


Not long ago, I watched the movie Quills—a fictionalized depiction (or maybe a contemplation) of the Marquis de Sade. Sade, played by Geoffrey Rush, is a complicated, obsessive writer living in a madhouse/prison, who must write, can’t stop writing (I can relate), and also is compelled to reveal the details of his sexuality through his work. At one point, Sade says (perhaps about the official who is determined to prevent him from writing—and also to prevent his books from being read): “We merely held up a mirror; apparently, he didn’t like what he saw.”

Quills is maybe the best representation of the complexities of book banning I’ve ever seen or read, and it reminded me of when I actually dared to read Sade’s Justine in the early 2000s, when I was writing Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. What I expected when I started it was not only unmitigated cruelty on the part of the author toward Justine, but also her reduction to an object. What surprised me was that Sade was eager to explore Justine’s torment from her point of view. He made her a sympathetic character and gave her a much more complex inner life than many of the female characters who were being depicted around the time that Sade wrote his frequently banned book. What he seemed to be showing us was that society itself was promoting cruelty toward women, both sexual and personal, and all he was doing was describing it.

I am guessing that Justine was banned because Sade’s depiction of the world around him was truthful and uncomfortable for those in charge (not only in the government but also in the church). And I am guessing that this is why most books are banned—because they tell the truth, and the truth is that humans are complicated and often cruel, and the more power they have, the more they are tempted to use it. Quills is explicit about this very thing—the cruelest character is Dr. Royer-Collard (played by Michael Caine), the official who is determined to shred all the copies of Justine that have been printed, and who is also determined to force himself on his very young wife. In the film, Sade uses writing to investigate himself and society, no matter how shocking such an investigation might be. His antagonist is willing to do anything to prevent that investigation.

What happens when we don’t allow those investigations to occur? The only book of mine that has been banned is A Thousand Acres, and it hasn’t been very widely banned, but the problem appears to have been “sexual content.” The sexual content in A Thousand Acres is the fact that the two older daughters, Ginny and Rose, have been sexually molested by their father, Larry. Rose remembers it clearly and uses it as her reason for resisting Larry’s efforts to pass the farm to the youngest daughter, Caroline, while Ginny has put it so far out of her mind that she only remembers the episodes late in the novel. (Caroline hasn’t been molested and takes her father’s side.) The best compliment I’ve ever gotten for A Thousand Acres was from a psychologist I encountered at a reading, who told me that Rose’s vivid memory of the molestations compared with Ginny’s dissociative amnesia was the most realistic depiction of what happens after incest and rape that he had read in fiction.

In 2013, Mia Fontaine wrote in The Atlantic: “Child sexual abuse impacts more Americans annually than cancer, AIDS, gun violence, LGBTQ inequality, and the mortgage crisis combined.” And more recent studies agree. But there are a lot of people who want to ban a book that depicts not the incest itself but the memory of it.

Books about sex aren’t the only ones being banned these days. At the top of the list are books about slavery (Beloved, by Toni Morrison), sexuality (Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe), personal crises (Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher), and the effects of historical American cruelty on various subcultures (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie). What are the book banners afraid of? Well, we all know: They are afraid of readers—especially young readers—learning the truth about humans, about American history, about, perhaps, their own lives. As Royer-Collard in Quills would tell you, “My cruelty isn’t your business.” And then he would whisper, “Try and stop me.”

What would I do if my sons were still in their early teens and I found them browsing pornographic websites (or reading old copies of Playboy)? I would talk to them about it—ask what they were looking for, what it felt like, and how it made them feel about themselves. There’s no certainty about how they would respond, but I would rather open the conversation than shut it down. And what about my daughters? They might have different reasons for doing the same thing, but it would be good to talk about those, too. We all know that by their late teens, our children are going to be surrounded by temptations—not only drugs, booze, and sex but also bullying, racism, and sexism. Better to recognize these sources of fear and anger in our society in an open way rather than in a secret way.

And, yes, we can’t be certain how our children will react. Quills addresses this issue, too: The main female character is a young woman who delivers laundry to the asylum’s occupants and secretly takes Sade’s manuscripts away to be printed. Toward the end (spoiler alert), Royer-Collard has stopped her from interacting with Sade, and so she and her quill and her piece of paper are at the end of a gossip trail: Sade tells a fellow patient what the next line is, and he passes it on to another, who passes it on in turn. But the fellow whose job it is to pass it on to the young woman is full of easily triggered violence, and when the last line comes to him, he wants to do to the young woman what Sade is writing about in the story. As a result, he kills her.

I am sure the book banners watching this movie (“Warning: Explicit Content”) would jump in the air to exclaim that, yes, they were right all along; but it is evident in the film from the beginning that this fellow is a bomb waiting to go off, and that Sade—the perp, according to Royer-Collard—has always been kind toward the young woman, while no one in the asylum has paid a bit of attention to the violent propensities of the killer. In other words, the theory the film presents is that book banning is a publicity stunt—a performance of supposed concern about what readers might learn from a book, a Band-Aid (“banned aid”) that attempts to cover up the failure of the medical and educational systems to perceive and attend to the psychological problems, family problems, and socioeconomic problems that are pushing readers—and, in our day, especially teen readers—into resentment and violence.

Everyone knows that book banning can actually increase sales. Maybe that’s why authors laugh at being banned. But not all teens have enough money to defy the ban and get a copy of the book. What the book banners (from schools and libraries) refuse to acknowledge is that reading books is a process of development. In a novel, every bit of shocking material has to be surrounded by personality, setting, theory, psychological analysis, contrasting events and points of view. A young person reading a book understands this bit, and then that bit, and then more. Eventually, what is going on in the book coalesces into a larger picture that puts the shocking parts into context (as I discovered when I read Justine). It is the context that is revealing, because it creates a logical sense of why something is taking place. That’s what young readers learn from reading. If shocking material draws them in, keeps them off their cell phones or the Internet for a while, and shows them something more complex, then the result will be a more thoughtful young adult, spouse, and parent.

I wouldn’t mind if books had warnings, as movies do—indicating that they are for an adult audience, say—but it is important for our children to learn all the complexities of the truth about human nature when they are young. Many of them can’t be protected by circumstances, and the more they know and understand, the better they can handle what happens to them and their loved ones, and the better they can empathize and sympathize with the people they come to know who have been damaged or traumatized.

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