Books are a vital part of our lives, but with the recent increase in censorship, access to literature is dwindling. Photo by Hannah Barone.
SADIA KHATRI | OPINION COLUMNIST | email@example.com
For a country that prides itself on its principles of free speech and autonomy, the United States partakes in an absurd amount of censorship and book bannings. From state legislation that makes banning books as easy as learning the ABCs to individual school districts and libraries creating strict rules to ban a wide array of literature, American citizens — especially American students — are no strangers to censorship.
Book bans are a form of censorship that are particularly prevalent across the United States. These bans are typically defined as any type of action that is taken towards censoring certain books because of the content they may contain. School districts, parents and political groups can all contribute to book bans. Book bans are especially common in traditionally conservative states like Texas and Florida.
However, what content do these titles contain that warrant such censorship? Many of these banned books include some type of reference to race, gender or sexuality-based narratives or experiences, as is the case with “The Bluest Eye,” “This Book is Gay,” “Gender Queer” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” — just a handful of the commonly banned titles. These are all novels that contain references to the LGBTQ+ experience, racism or sexual abuse.
Though these types of books are commonly banned, they are not the only types of novels that are banned. Historically, many magical or fantastical stories have also been censored. “Alice in Wonderland” was often banned in the 20th century for its depictions of talking animals. “Harry Potter” has often been banned for its references to magic. Books are banned for all types of ridiculous reasons, but we are seeing a dramatic increase in bans that target books that focus on race and sexuality.
Junior finance major Elizabeth Reed believes that the culprits behind book bans are motivated by some type of fear.
“The people banning [these books] are scared that people are going to learn all of these different things and learn about different cultures … and that it’s going to affect them in some deep, harmful way,” Reed said. “In reality, knowledge is power.”
The perpetrators of these bans often claim that they are protecting children from explicit content. However, the titles that are often banned rarely contain content that younger students need to actively stay away or be protected from. Instead, novels are typically good sources that provide young readers with insight into topics they may be struggling with or experiencing themselves. For students who may not be experiencing the topics they are reading about, these novels can be valuable sources of information. Some of these books also provide remarkably valuable information about history, especially with respect to systemic and structural forms of racism.
Reed believes that the claims that banning books protects children is absurd and untrue.
“I think it’s complete nonsense,” Reed said. “[Books are not inherently] harmful … Those are all things people are going to learn about regardless.”
History and classics lecturer Dr. Jeana Jorgenson also mentioned that the children that the book banners are trying to protect are often part of a very narrow and specific demographic.
“Historically, claims of trying to protect children have primarily been about white children,” Jorgenson said. “[It] also implied heterosexual, cisgender, probably middle class [and] probably Christian [children]. So I think it’s only a narrow slice of children that these people actually care about.”
It is ludicrous to claim that banning books with somewhat sensitive topics is protecting children. Students deserve to be able to read literature that contains references to topics that they may be experiencing or struggling with themselves. Students deserve to be able to read literature that contains references to challenging historical topics so they can learn about our gruesome history. Students deserve to be able to read literature that contains references to topics that broaden their horizons and provide them with unique perspectives.
Students deserve to be able to read uncensored literature.
Jorgenson mentioned that having a diverse selection of titles can be very beneficial for students of different backgrounds and identities.
“I think that the absence of these works will do more harm than their presence,” Jorgenson said. “We have multiple studies showing that, for instance, in gender nonconforming children, knowing it’s okay and it’s normal [to be gender nonconforming] is a huge step … and that has really positive mental health impacts for a lot of these marginalized populations.”
In the early 2000s, around 400 books were typically banned per year. Now, however, that number has drastically increased, and a unique facet of many of these book bans is that a few specific school districts are responsible for a large number of banned books. As of April of 2023, it was found that 1,477 book bans took place during the 2022-2023 school year. These bans took place over the span of 37 states and included 874 specific books that were banned.
Students in traditionally red states, including Indiana, are at a much larger disadvantage and risk of facing increased censorship. Censorship and book bans have become commonplace, and Indiana is no exception. Indiana recently passed legislation that requires censoring books in school libraries that contain any obscene content that is “harmful to minors.” School librarians that do not comply with these standards could potentially face up to two and a half years of time behind bars and a level six felony.
This legislation is vague and open to interpretation, and Dr. Jorgenson thinks this only makes it more dangerous.
“I think … there are people, probably more conservatively aligned people, who view the expansion of gender and sexuality and, ‘Hey, other religions are okay,’ [and] ‘Hey, immigrants are okay,’ [and] I think they’re threatened by this,” Jorgenson said.
It is absurd that the power to censor and ban titles is concentrated in the hands of individuals that are using questionable political beliefs and scare tactics to keep school districts and libraries subservient to their demands.
Reed believes that these scare tactics add another level of fear and stress for librarians.
“You think, as a librarian, ‘Okay, well, I could speak out about this and risk losing my job,’” Reed said. “That’s one thing. But now, [they think], ‘I could speak out about this, not remove these titles and end up with a felony record.’”
The Indiana bill does not specifically target literature about race or sexuality, but it does refer to titles that may be sexual in nature. Books with LGBTQ+ themes may be deemed as titles that contain sexual content that is not suitable for children, even though there may be no actual sexual content included.
Banning books is dangerous on various different levels. Apart from depriving young students from literature they deserve a chance to read, book bans are also something that Jorgenson finds to be adjacent to fascism.
“When you restrict education [and] when you restrict which types of identities can just be seen as normal and a topic for literature and books, that is a move towards authoritarianism,” Jorgenson said. “I know that sounds alarmist … but it’s the fascist playbook.”
Yossra Daiya, a senior psychology and political science major, made the important point that books may not be the only thing that start getting censored as we progress through these uncertain times.
“I think the question is, “Where does it stop?’” Daiya said. “Once you open that door to censorship, there’s no longer regulation. You set the precedent to do more and to continue to censor things that are parts of American history.”
Censoring books is just the start of a troubling future. There is something deeply alarming about America’s descent towards authoritarianism and fascism that words cannot even begin to describe. Children and students are beginning to lose access to more and more titles. We are starting to lose our grip on keeping literature safe and accessible.
We live in a country where there is an open playing field for people with questionable, and arguably unethical, political beliefs to run wild. America is a political playground and some politicians are jumping around without a care in the world.
As censorship efforts continue to persist, it is imperative that we make an effort to read banned books. Many of these novels indeed contain content that may make us feel uncomfortable, but that is more than okay.
“It’s good to be uncomfortable,” Reed said. “When you’re uncomfortable, you’re learning.”
On campus, Irwin Library is a great place to begin your banned book journey. In September, Irwin Library will be hosting a month to commemorate and focus on banned books. They will be hosting a banned book showcase and panel with professors on Sept. 21. The library will also have blind dates with banned books throughout the month for students to enjoy, where students can pick up a banned book to read, along with events where students can sign petitions and write letters to their senators. As we head down a shaky and uncertain future, we must continue to keep banned books alive. Censorship is only effective if we are silent.
Take the time to read something that makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. Take the time to read something that widens your perspective. Take the time to read something that helps you understand a new identity or background. Take the time to read a banned book.