Somebody gave Margaret Atwood a flamethrower.
The grey-haired writer has grow to be a patron saint for a sure sort of dystopian apocalypticism. No protest is full lately with out at the least a number of girls within the crimson robes and white bonnets of The Handmaid’s Story, her clouded portrait of an authoritarian society constructed round controlling conscience and fertility. “The Handmaid’s Story has been banned many occasions—typically by entire nations, corresponding to Portugal and Spain within the days of Salazar and the Francoists,” Atwood notes, “typically by faculty boards, typically by libraries.”
All of which made her the proper topic for a stunt to lift cash for PEN America, a nonprofit that fights literary censorship: She took a blowtorch to a custom-made fireproof version of her most well-known work, which might later be put up for public sale by Sotheby’s.
Ebook burnings have lengthy been in style with those that would seize and maintain energy, from the Catholic Church to Josef Stalin. Kings, fascists, and communists alike have warmed their fingers over literary bonfires. However not often in 2022 America do e-book bans take the incendiary type of our Ray Bradbury–fueled fever desires.
But controversy over e-book bans has flared up nonetheless, with native and state elections received or misplaced over which books will probably be stocked in libraries or taught in faculties—a newly invigorated front in a long-running tradition battle.
The American Library Affiliation (ALA), one other anti-censorship group, retains lists of what it calls “challenged books”—books that an individual or group has tried to take away from or limit entry to in faculties or libraries. A “banned e-book” is one the place that elimination is profitable.
By the ALA’s reckoning, challenges and bans are approach up, setting a 20-year report. The group recorded 729 challenges to library, faculty, and college supplies in 2021, focusing on greater than 1,500 completely different titles. The listing is way from exhaustive, assembled as it’s from media stories and from of us who contact the group immediately. This produces an odd chicken-and-egg drawback, the place the extra politically agitated persons are about e-book bannings, the extra incidents they’ll report as e-book bannings, and the extra there’ll look like.
The books that make the ALA annual high 10 listing differ from yr to yr, however they comprise a constant combine: classics that cope with mature themes—Beloved and the Bible—books that include slurs or different now-contentious phrases or depictions of race—Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird—books that contact on intercourse or gender from what is meant to be an age-appropriate perspective—I Am Jazz and something by Raina Telgemeier—books that smack of the occult—the Harry Potter sequence and Bridge to Terabithia—and books which can be very clearly by and for adults—Fifty Shades of Gray.
The ALA listing suggests e-book banners lean proper—with an rising emphasis on books with queer themes or characters, for instance—although e-book challenges come from throughout the spectrum of political opinion and aesthetic choice. It is debatable whether or not the listing’s bias is an artifact of the collectors’ considerations or just a mirrored image of an underlying actuality.
“Banned books” is a obscure class, like “cancel tradition” or “obscenity.” On the terrifying high of the hierarchy are true e-book bans, enforced by the state—the sort that encourage the government-sponsored conflagrations described above, particularly these designed to suppress political dissent or erase inconvenient histories.
The elimination of books from public libraries or public faculty libraries is a step under these, although it is usually authorities censorship of a sort, for the reason that books are eliminated by public staff, typically on the behest of politicians. So too with curriculum battles: These fall far in need of a state-ordered e-book burning, however they’re too typically pushed by the identical censorial impulse and smallness of thoughts. They’re much less troubling than outright bans, since they are usually localized, utilized primarily to youngsters, and publicized in ways in which make it potential for fogeys to hedge in opposition to them. However that doesn’t imply they’re unobjectionable.
There are at all times new fronts within the e-book wars. The tip of Might noticed a weird extension of the varsity library e-book ban into the personal sector, one which was clearly unconstitutional, politically motivated, and in the end pointless. Two Virginia Republicans (a congressional candidate and a member of the Home of Delegates) requested a courtroom to put a restraining order on the sale of two books, requiring that purchasers be carded: Gender Queer, a graphic novel about nonbinary identification, and—considerably inexplicably—the second e-book in a sequence that may greatest be described as faerie porn, A Court docket of Mist and Fury. The books have little or no in frequent aside from the truth that each cope with intercourse. However as anybody who has ever stood agog within the romance aisle of a Barnes & Noble is aware of, they’re hardly the one two books to take action. Neither is Barnes & Noble the one venue the place one may purchase such books, although the varsity board of the Virginia Seaside Metropolis Public Faculties already voted to take away Gender Queer from faculty libraries as properly.
Almost all the books talked about on this difficulty are, in reality, out there to motivated American readers. “Let’s hope we do not attain the stage of wholesale e-book burnings, as in Fahrenheit 451,” mentioned Atwood, her blowtorch nonetheless smoking. “But when we do, let’s hope some books will show unburnable—that they’ll travel underground, as prohibited books did within the Soviet Union.”
However there are extra methods for governments to regulate what folks can learn than instantly identifiable e-book bans. Adults should battle to get entry to books for every kind of causes associated to authorities, from intellectual property fights to native zoning to incarceration.
There are additionally personal entities who apply a type of e-book banning. Whereas this kind is the least worrying from a authorized viewpoint—firms and people ought to have the best to do enterprise with whomever they like—it’s nonetheless troubling from a cultural perspective, and it appears to be on the rise. It contains self-censorship by authors and publishers in addition to gatekeeping by booksellers.
All of those much less blatant limitations are explored within the pages that comply with, together with their extra conventional counterparts. It is value noting that the one e-book we had been unable to acquire in our analysis for this difficulty is a memoir that is still unpublished on account of a gag order by the Securities and Change Fee, a closing reminder to not be too distracted by the blowtorch whereas different books are being quietly snuffed out.
We hope this difficulty of Purpose will function each a cautionary story and a enjoyable summer time studying listing, as a result of in lots of instances a “banned” e-book can also be a preferred e-book. A mere whiff of the censor’s smoke can ship hordes of curious novelty seekers off to amass copies. Not all will stand the literary check of time, however the Holy Bible and faerie porn every have their place. Maybe that place is poolside?
Romeo and Juliet
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
Howl and Other Poems
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Master and Margarita
The Satanic Verses
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future
I Am Jazz
Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
Blood in the Water
Heather Ann Thompson
When Harry Became Sally
Ryan T. Anderson
Elizabeth Nolan Brown
This text initially appeared in print beneath the headline “Who Controls What Books You Can Learn?”.