In 212 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti burned almost all of the books in his kingdom, keeping only single copies for the royal library. Those too were destroyed before he died, so that history could be seen to start with him. Previously, Shih Huang Ti is purported to have buried 460 Confucian scholars alive to control his era’s historical narrative.
That was on a list of notorious book bans compiled by Freedom to Read Week, an initiative of Canada’s Book and Periodical Council. Humans thrive on knowledge, opinions, ideas and new perspectives. And those with bad intentions have long tried to erase the books containing them.
Freedom to Read cited examples stretching from the Roman emperor Caligula in 35 A.D. (he objected to readings of The Odyssey by Homer, feeling it conveyed dangerous Greek notions of freedom), to Pope Paul IV in 1559 (he set out the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, itemizing the books Catholics weren’t allowed to read), to attempts over the past century to remove books as varied as Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.
Things appear to be getting worse.
In the U.S., the demands to censor library books are now at the highest level since the American Library Association (ALA) began compiling data.
In 2022, almost 2,600 titles were targeted, up 38% in one year. Most of the banning efforts centre on books that cover topics like race and racism, LGBTQ characters and themes, gender, sexuality and oppression.
Some students have taken to creating banned book clubs. A 16-year-old in Miami who started one this school year said her club is “a way to read beautiful literature that’s important, and an act of resistance.”
Earlier this year, the Toronto Public Library created a Book Sanctuary Collection, which includes 50 books that have been challenged, censored or removed from a public library or school in North America. They’re highlighted for browsing and borrowing, and include The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and the King James Bible.
What’s behind the current surge of book bans?
They’re not the result of isolated complaints, but of organized political efforts.
The Washington Post requested copies of all book challenges filed in the 2021-2022 school year in 153 school districts across the U.S. Then they looked at who was behind the challenges, and published the results in an article in June. Here’s what they found.
Most people who filed a challenge did so against just a single title. Yet 60% of all filers challenged at least 10 books. Some challenged a few dozen. And the majority of the 1,000-plus challenges that the newspaper analyzed were filed by just 11 people.
These are synchronized campaigns by people fronting for ultra-right-wing conservative groups. And it may not be limited to an American phenomenon.
In May, a column in the Globe and Mail noted that American-style book bans could very well happen in Canada too. “Censorship is not going to be contained by an imaginary line on a map. How could Canada not be affected? Infected?”
The column quoted James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University: “There’s been an explosion of challenges to intellectual freedom, to books, to programs in Canada. I think it’s been significantly inspired by what’s happening in the United States.”
This summer, Richard Beaudry, a former school librarian and former president of the Canadian School Libraries, wrote about the issue in Maclean’s. Beaudry has spent 20 years helping teacher-librarians address challenges to books in their holdings. While there are always scattered requests by individuals to pull volumes, he’s seeing more coordinated efforts.
“I’ve noticed more parents asking librarians to justify books in their collections. Unfortunately, it’s easier than ever to find like-minded people on the internet and organize hostile book-banning movements,” wrote Beaudry, now coordinator of the Teacher Librarianship program at UBC.
“Over the last year, there has been more misinformation than ever before spread on social media about what happens in libraries,” he went on. “People have accused school libraries in Canada of having books with child pornography and accused teacher-librarians of trying to indoctrinate children through books about gender identity and sexual orientation. It’s become easier for parents to rally around this misinformation and advocate for book bans.”
Can you feel the flames?
We’re in the midst of the ALA’s annual Banned Books Week. Just days ago, an official from a school district in North Carolina wrote to school principals asking them to cancel any events or messaging associated with the ALA initiative. So they tried to ban Banned Books Week.
It would be absurd if it wasn’t so frightening.
The Washington Post wrote about how “serial book challengers” had support from highly organized groups of volunteers. For instance, in Florida the group Moms for Liberty had people looking for “problematic” books (without reading them) by entering certain keywords in school library databases.
One school county has received 251 challenges under the name of Jennifer Pippin, who heads a chapter of Moms for Liberty.
If you’ve never heard of that noxious group, it was formed in 2021 as a political organization advocating for so-called “conservative values” and “parental rights”, and against school curricula that touches on LGBTQ rights, race and ethnicity, and discrimination. The group also opposed mask and vaccine mandates in school during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has helped to organize anti-LGBTQ rallies.
Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an American civil rights organization, labelled Moms for Liberty as a far-right extremist group, comparing them to pro-segregationist groups of the 1950s.
This past June, an Indiana chapter of Moms for Liberty ran a quote from Adolf Hitler on the front page of their monthly newsletter. A few days later, at a Moms for Liberty conference, co-founder Tiffany Justice said “One of our moms in a newsletter quotes Hitler. I stand with that mom.” The crowd of KKKarens erupted in cheers.
History repeats. And it’s not that big a leap from book bans to book burnings to lighting democracy on fire.
On May 10, 1933 in Nazi Germany, university students across the country marched in torchlight parades and set a series of bonfires that burned around 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books. Their writers ranged from Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, to Albert Einstein and Helen Keller.
On Oct. 19, 1953, Ray Bradbury published his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 about an authoritarian society where books are outlawed. Instead of putting out fires, “firemen” locate and burn books, sometimes with a flamethrower. Over the decades, including in our 21st century, Fahrenheit 451 has itself has faced calls for bans.
And on Sept. 15, 2023, Bill Eigel, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of Missouri, decided the time was right to take Bradbury’s book seriously. Eigel, currently a state senator, gathered supporters at an outdoor event called “Freedom Fest” and shot a flamethrower at a pile of cardboard boxes. It was a metaphorical book burning, and there’s video of it on social media.
In an interview, Eigel said that if elected he’d burn books he found objectionable, and that were part of the “woke liberal agenda”, on the lawn outside the governor’s mansion.
As Eigel told the Associated Press, “From a dramatic sense, if the only thing in between the children in the state of Missouri and vulgar pornographic material getting in their hands is me burning, bulldozing or launching [books] into outer space, I’m going to do that.”
Book bans are always a sign of a dark and dangerous time.
This past spring, a country in Florida pulled 92 books from its school library shelves, including 20 by author Jodi Picoult. As Picoult told ABC News, one parent who wanted to ban all 20 of the books said on her form that she hadn’t even read them but didn’t like the “adult romance” themes.
“Half of the books don’t even have a single kiss in them. But they do have topics like gun rights and women’s reproductive health rights and gay rights,” Picoult said.
One of the books that were removed, The Storyteller, is a novel about the Holocaust. The irony wasn’t lost on Picoult: “It’s a book about the rise of fascism and how ordinary people can play into that. And that’s the reason we need books like this on the shelf.”
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.
October 4, 2023