Why I Read Banned Books (and Why You Should, Too)
Updated: Apr 28
We're right in the middle of Banned Books Week (Sept. 27 to Oct. 3), an annual celebration not of actually banning books but of the freedom to read.
Imagine you could only read books that were picked out for you by someone else. Imagine you could never try a book from a certain genre, or from an author you'd heard about, or regarding a particular topic. For book lovers, picking new books and enjoying new authors is an important and appealing part of the reading experience. We choose books we hope will entertain us, inspire us, teach us new things! Now imagine you were limited to reading only the books selected for you, or you could only pick books from a list of titles approved by someone else. Reading time might not be so fun, inspiring, or educational anymore. That's the chilling effect of censorship.
The National Coalition Against Censorship says censorship happens when some people succeed in imposing their political views or moral values on others by suppressing words, images, or ideas they find offensive. Now just expressing your dislike or even disgust about a book is not censorship. That’s having an opinion. In fact, you have a right to express your views. It’s what someone does next that can be considered an attempt at censorship. When someone takes action with the intent to remove or restrict access to a book which would otherwise be available to others in a library or school, they've fallen into the more troubling trap of censorship.
Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and aims to promote the free and easy access to books and information for everyone. The Office of Intellectual Freedom tracks book challenges and bans and recently released a list of the Top 100 Most Banned and Challenged Books: 2010-2019. You can see the full list by clicking here. You'll find everything from children's picture books to YA novels to classic works of fiction to non-fiction titles. There's a good chance you were assigned to read at least one of the books on the list either in high school or college. The Bible is on the Top 100 List at number 52.
What made these books controversial? Generally, book challenges and bans are based on complaints over sex, violence, profanity, or perceived bias. A number of books on the list drew complaints because they include LGBTQIA+ content. Some books are challenged for supporting a particular religious or political viewpoint. The Harry Potter series has been frequently challenged over concerns it promotes witchcraft and magic.
So why do I read banned books? Because I can! Freedom to read is important to me, whether I want to page through a summer beach read, dive into a classic work of literature, or share a children's book as a read aloud with my family. If a book has been challenged, I know that someone wants to substitute their judgement about a book for my own, and I would rather make my own decisions. Just because I read a book doesn't mean that I will like or agree with the content. Sometimes reading a different point of view has swayed me, but other times it has solidified my own thinking. Reading banned books lets me examine both the books and my own mind.
"But What About the Children?!" Yes, some books written for children have been challenged by people who earnestly want to protect kids from content they deem offensive or not age appropriate. While the desire to protect children may seem harmless or helpful, taking action to restrict the books available to children is still a form of censorship. When it comes to children and access to library resources, the American Library Association’s policy is that “librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.”
In other words, I can have a say in what books my children read, but not the books your children read. And to be clear, I don't think you have rogue librarians out there trying to slip copies of 50 Shades of Grey to third graders. I'm confident that libraries want to provide books that are appropriate for a patron’s reading level and tastes and interests no matter how old that patron is. Picking a book that matches your own reading preferences and values is just being an active, informed reader.
So let's be active and informed readers. Take another look at that list of the Top 100 Most Banned and Challenged Books: 2010-2019. Some of the titles will likely be familiar to you. Some may not. Look a few of them up. Read them. Share them with your family if you're so inclined. You might love them. You might not. That's OK. The important thing is that you had access to those books and could judge them for yourself. That's the freedom to read.
Best wishes for further (banned book) reading!