A Bookseller Commentary: Another Book Banned in Another High School

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Destinations Booksellers in New Albany, Indiana, is planning to create a Banned Books Week display around Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), which was recently banned by a local school district. Randy Smith, who co-owns the store with Ann Baumgartle, has explained in a letter to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and on his store blog why he thinks it is important to fight censorship. He has kindly given Bookselling This Week permission to republish his post.

Another Book Banned in Another High School

By Randy Smith

I’m putting together a blog post for our store blog. In the process of refreshing my knowledge of tactics and examples where book banning has been exposed for the misguided action that it is, I ran across [ABFFE’s] link to “report book censorship.”

My first exposure to book banning on a wide and dangerous scale was in high school many, many years ago. As I write this to you, it occurs to me that I should actually make this letter my blog post.

I can’t say that I have always been a strong financial supporter of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, but I have always been appreciative that you (we) are there to provide resources, including legal resources, when First Amendment issues arise in our communities.

From the beginning, our store has posted ABFFE’s invaluable “In Case of First Amendment Emergency” poster and all of our staff have been trained in how to respond should law enforcement make a request of us regarding customer information.

And your recent legal assist in Virginia v. American Booksellers Association, in which the court upheld the pre-enforcement precedent, was greatly appreciated.

My own exposure to the censorship of books came rather early in life. I was a precocious reader and was often given access to books that were, shall we way, “above my reading level.” That is, not every pupil was allowed to read them.

But in high school the matter became more serious when our entire English department was subjected to threats of dismissal or other discipline over the reading materials they assigned.

Our school board itself, as constituted then, would probably have described themselves as conservative. I’m not sure they would have rejected a description calling them reactionary.

The new school board and the new superintendent determined to make an immediate impact by censoring reading materials, including books assigned in high school English classes.

They did not count on a massive outpouring of support from the entire student body who, though they could not vote yet, could certainly canvass and persuade their voting parents. When our teachers’ livelihoods were threatened, we students lobbied, spoke at public hearings, demonstrated, and promised unwavering support.

Honestly, I could not tell you today which books prompted the censorship effort. But isn’t that always the way? It’s not the books or their content. Censorship is always about power and the attempt to exert a corrosive influence over the First Amendment rights of others.

The First Amendment, of course, covers many aspects of personal freedom. It is usual to think of book censorship as an attack on the free expression rights of authors, and, of course, it is that.

But I believe that censorship of books is an affront to the First Amendment rights of consumers as much as it is an attempt to throttle expression; for when expression is threatened, discourse is discouraged, and that’s the whole reason the Bill of Rights leads off with a guarantee of freedom to express ourselves and to assemble with whom we choose.

I have a lot of faith in teachers, and when a teacher utilizes his education and life experience to make a careful selection of course content, I’m inclined to defer to their judgment.

Which brings us to the present case.

I do not want to engage in a crusade here. Perhaps there is a time and a place to do that, but this is not that time for me. I simply wanted to “report” a case of censorship.

One of the school systems for which we serve as vendors (we’re an independent bookstore) has put a ban on a particular book. The author and the book will surprise no one familiar with book banning. The book is taught in thousands of schools across the U.S. and is even being taught in the very same school where it was simultaneously banned.

The book is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie can, and does, defend himself well. He says, in the video embedded below, that book-banners are so easy to make fun of because they seldom read the books they seek to ban. He says they don’t really want to ban books — they want to ban imagination.

For Banned Books Week this year (September 21 – 27), we’re inviting a speaker on the dangers of censorship. Would that we could invite Mr. Alexie himself.

And to press home the points we and Sherman Alexie are making, we’ve already put up a display of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a full month in advance of Banned Books Week. Any of the readers of this blog are invited to come in and get a free copy of the book. We suggest you read it and then give the book to a high-school student who you think would be enriched by the story it tells.

Oh. Why was the book banned at a local school? I am told it is because of “language.” I’ve lived here for quite a while and I do not fear harm to any children from reading the “language” in this book.

For more on the issue and this particular book, I’m offering a few headlines with links.

Please feel free to repost this and otherwise remind people that our freedoms are under attack.

Sherman Alexie at the National Coalition Against Censorship’s “Free Speech Matters: Celebration of Free Speech and Its Defendersin November 2013