Monday 6 January 2014

The State of Book Banning in 2013

As reported in The Guardian newspaper, the US-based Kids’ Right to Read Project witnessed a disturbing increase in attempts to ban books in America last year. The organization provides resources and counselling to teachers, librarians, and others faced with attempts to remove books from school curricula or make them otherwise unavailable. Last year they investigated 49 attempts to ban books, which is a 53% increase from the year prior. Most of these attempts were initiated by parents of students or library patrons. What is not clear is whether this represents a continuing trend toward attempting to ban books, or this increase can be attributed to other factors. It is possible, for example, that this rise may partly represent growing awareness of the resources that the Kids Right to Read Project provides, making teachers and librarians more likely to contact this group for help. As is noted in the original Guardian article, it is difficult to estimate how often books are banned since most of these incidents are not reported. In my own mind, this issue of banning books highlights an interesting conundrum for researchers of fiction. A great deal of our work demonstrates the power and influence of fiction, its ability to change how we see the world and how we see ourselves. If fiction can have a powerful influence, however, then it is easy to see how some might use this fact to argue that there should be stricter controls on the accessibility of fiction. My feeling is that most researchers of fiction, including myself, would be uncomfortable with this line of logic. Some resolution of this apparent conflict lies in the fact that the influence of fiction is complex, opening people’s minds to a wealth of possibility and serving as just one influence amongst many within a person’s realm of experience. So although it may be the case that people’s attitudes and beliefs can be shaped by what they read, these attitudes and beliefs are not dropped into our minds fully-formed and unquestioned. Our ultimate beliefs about the world and ourselves are the product of a myriad of experiences, with our experiences in fictional narrative worlds being just one of many. Importantly, it is a diversity of experience that leads to more nuanced understandings of the world and the people within it, and fiction provides a useful way to expose oneself to such diversity through the power of imagination.

** Pictured is the cover of Sherman Alexie's novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, one of the books most often targeted for banning in 2013.

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