• Thu. May 30th, 2024

The Rise of Book Bans and Why We Should Be Concerned

ByZara Corbett

Nov 14, 2023
book bans projected on side of building

A recent rise in book bans in American public schools is the latest issue on the agenda of the culture war in the United States. This is according to a reported entitled “Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor” by PEN America, an independent organisation set up one hundred years ago to defend poets, essayists and novelists against rising threats to free speech.

PEN America’s report begins by saying that “the freedom to read is under assault in the United States,” an inflammatory statement politicising literature as a threatened liberal industry.

The report outlines that in the 2022-2023 academic year, 1,557 individual book titles were banned in US public school classrooms and libraries, prohibiting children’s access to more than 1,480 authors, illustrators and translators.

In the majority of cases, the targeted books are those written by minority groups, including black and LGBTQ+ writers, often featuring characters representative of these groups.

The bans are not consistent across the country, with no standard law or legislation against the themes presented in the forbidden books; regulations are instead enforced by parents and coordinated ideological right-wing campaigns. Just under half of all bans occurred in school districts in Florida, followed by Texas, Missouri and Utah – indicative of the political stance of these states.

The banning of books featuring marginalised characters of colour and LGBTQ+ characters by conservative individuals recall echoes of a past much more damaging than we might realise. Is history repeating itself?

The statistics suggest this might be the case. States with book bans have overwhelmingly (88%) voted Republican in the last presidential election, unsurprisingly opposing liberal values and turning their backs on literary freedoms.

Public schools in America are traditionally a symbol of democracy: safe spaces for children to pursue knowledge, grow in their curiosity and learn about the world around them in a place that is constructed with them at the centre. However, if the decisions being made no longer have children’s best interests at heart, these democratic (and capital-D Democratic) values are at risk. 

3,362 instances of book banning in the most recent academic year is an increase of a third on the previous year, suggesting this trend is not slowing down. Among the top ten most frequently banned books appear titles such as Looking for Alaska (2005), Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), all young adult novels written specifically to target young people and encourage discussion on themes such as mental health and marginalisation.

The process of banning books is a form of censorship which prohibits access to literature for political, legal or moral reasons, and it is not limited to the United States.

A survey conducted this year by the British association called the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) found that a third of librarians in the UK had been asked by members of the public to censor or remove books, often targeting books which discuss themes including race and gender.

Censorship in public libraries seems like a contradiction in terms, but it is nothing new. Some of the most famous books in British literary history were once banned, suggesting that banning books can have an opposite effect. George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) have all been banned for various political and religious reasons, and yet have gone on to shape their respective literary eras – Animal Farm even being a popular choice today on the British GCSE syllabus.

Censorship in the so-called land of the free is only the beginning of this culture war, and Britain could be next to answer to its limitations.

Banned Books Week” by vpickering is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0