Could Banning Books Actually Encourage More Readers?

What do the books "The Catcher in the Rye," "Invisible Man" and Anne Frank's diary have in common? They've all been banned from libraries. On Sunday, the American Library Association begins its annual recognition of Banned Books Week. Tell Me More host Michel Martin talks to former ALA president Loriene Roy about targeted books, and efforts to keep them on shelves.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now I'll turn to a story about what Americans may find or miss on library shelves. This Sunday marks the start of "Banned Books Week" for the American Library Association. That's the time every year when that organization tries to call attention to books that have been banned or face threat of a ban from school or public libraries.

Here to tell us more about that is Loriene Roy. She's a former president of the American Library Association. She's a professor at the University of Texas, and founder of the National Reading Club for American Indian Students. Welcome back, thanks so much for joining us once again.

LORIENE ROY: Thank you, Michel. Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: I think that a lot of Americans would be surprised to find that there are still moves to ban books from schools and public libraries. So what are the reasons that schools and public libraries give for trying to remove certain books from their shelves - or maybe public citizens in the community who try to pressure schools and libraries to remove the books?

ROY: Well, I was looking at the "Banned Books Week" website, and every April, in fact, the American Library Association releases a list of the frequently challenged books of the previous year. And I saw, of the top 10, I have five at home I could find on my shelves right away. The top is "Captain Underpants," and that was banned or found objectionable by someone because of language, offensive language that they said was unsuited for the age group. Second title is one of my favorite titles by one of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian." These objections related to offensive language - once again - racism, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. So that gives you an idea of some of the rationale that people might have in requesting that books be restricted - have restricted access.

MARTIN: Are there any books that you think Americans would be particularly surprised to find are either banned or continually challenged? I mean, we're noting that one visible book that's been banned recently is Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." It's considered one of the classics of modern American literature. A school board in Randolph County, N.C., voted to remove it from the schools. Are there other books that you think people would be surprised to find are continually challenged?

ROY: Well, the American Library Association receives notice of almost 500 challenged titles every year. And somewhat too frequently mentioned titles, but you would be surprised - of course we have Mark Twain's books on the list, sometimes the Bible is on the list, which surprises people. A lot of children's titles, such as "And Tango Makes Three," - "Fifty Shades Of Gray" - "Thirteen Reasons Why," which is by Jay Asher, "The Kite Runner." So these are titles that you talk about, people have read. And for me, if I was a young person, I would be even more encouraged to investigate those titles and read them.

MARTIN: So do you think there's a through line here? I mean, I'm hearing a lot of books that that touch on issues of race and cultural identity, but a lot of books that address questions of sexuality - or where sexuality is one of the themes seems to be a particular target. What do you think about that?

ROY: There are some themes and the word is so strong that people respond to certain themes that they find, to themselves, personally objectionable. And when it impacts library services, it's a question of access. And just because one person finds something objectionable, doesn't mean they have the right to restrict access to that item that other people - other parents and other children should have access to. In fact, the Ellison title, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom and a number of other organizations are really just outraged that this is happening and during this time where we really celebrate access to information and intellectual freedom.

MARTIN: On the other hand, I mean, you can - do you have any sympathy for people who feel that something like "Fifty Shades Of Gray" is basically soft porn or porn and that there's really - you know, if you want to read that fine, but why should public dollars go to subsidizing something like that? And a lot of people find it entertaining, but I don't know too many people who think that it's of, kind of, high literary merit. So when people feel like - you know, public dollars are scarce, why should libraries stock a book like that?

ROY: Well, libraries build their collections based on policy documents, and so they will have a selection policy. And if a title becomes listed on, for example, a bestseller's list or the top 10, they might have in their policy that they purchase a copy because they know the interest is going to be there. We can look back in time and see books that you wouldn't want to read today - "Princess Daisy" - libraries have hundreds of copies of those. And so you do acquire collections that respond to public interest in public need and it doesn't mean everyone has to read that title, but you're providing access to it.

MARTIN: It used to be that banning a book made it hot property - that girls, for example, would, you know, pass Judy Blume's books, you know, from hand-to-hand. That's in part what kind of built interest in them and I think that now, I think a lot of people do feel that her books have high literary merit, even if everybody doesn't agree, depending on what age you think the reader is, but is that still the case? Does banning a book from a public library increase interest in it or do people have so many other ways to get books now, like online or through their e-readers, that it doesn't really have that much force?

ROY: Well, I don't have evidence of that, but I think people who advocate for intellectual freedom should look at that list and, again, if I was a young person and I tell my son look at the list and next week - and during next week and every week of the year, especially during "Banned Books Week," take a look at a banned book. There's going to be a lot of activities during "Banned Books Week" about reading books. There are going to be readouts. Look at the "Banned Books Week" website and you'll see the heroes of "Banned Book Week." There's got to be a lot of tweeting so it is a time to consider our freedoms, the freedoms of others and celebrate titles that have meaning to many people.

MARTIN: Loriene Roy is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Information. She's a former president of the American Library Association and she was with us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Loriene Roy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROY: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: