What the US’s ‘Banned Books Week’ Is Missing

I, like most of you, was appalled and slightly titillated when the Randolph County Board of Education removed Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man not just from its 11th grade recommended reading list, but also from its school libraries, with one board member claiming not to have seen any “literary value” in the book:

bannedThis is important not just for the ostensible battle (over the book’s cuss words and “sexual content” vs. its “literary value”), but because Ralph Ellison’s voice, and his beautiful writing about visibility, is important for US teens to hear and read. And because of what this book’s exclusion means. And because of Jonathan Ferrell. And a hundred other becauses.

But the focus of the US’s BBW is — broadly — not about what Ellison’s exclusion from a school curriculum means. Generally, the battlegrounds exposed by BBW are whether teen readers should be exposed to sex, drugs, and suicide (in literature) or whether they should be “protected” from knowing about these scourges. When challenges to the curricular inclusion of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are discussed, commenters generally focus on Alexie’s one-off mention of masturbation.

This past summer, I gave Alexie’s book to my then-nine-year-old to read. He didn’t notice the “sexual” content, which sailed right over his head, but he did understand the discussion of racism and bullying. I didn’t give him the book because I want my now-10-year-old to know about sex (uh, yikes!) but because I want him to read fun, beautifully crafted literature that takes him into many places beyond White America. (Meanwhile, I see that this “underpants” book has been removed from some school curricula. Yawn.)

Completely “banning” a book (once it exists) is fairly difficult in contemporary times, at least in places where access to the internet is widespread and where communities are relatively affluent. A book might be officially banned in Saudi, or kept out of the Kuwait book fair, but that doesn’t mean a clever reader can’t find a way to get a copy. Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro has been illegally reprinted in Egypt, and is sold in at least one bookstore. Egyptian authors can be bullied or even arrested, but they also have many venues for their work. While Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man might be kept out of Randolph County public schools — or maybe the board will reverse their decision today — a teenager with a library card can still pick up a copy at the local public library.

Of course, all these restrictions still matter. In some cases, where restrictions and red lines are suffocating to creators, they matter a great deal.

But access to art is always restricted in some way or another: A limited number of texts can be in a school curriculum; a limited number of reviews can appear in mainstream publications; a limited number of books are translated each year from other languages. (In the Anglophone case, an excessively limited number of books.)

How many translations are there in school curricula? How many US students have read Zeina Abirached’s beautiful graphic novel A Game for Swallows, trans.  Edward Gauvin? (Abolutely clean! No sex or cussing! Oh, but there’s a good bit of smoking….) Or how many Canadian curricula include Fatima Sharafeddine’s self-translated YA novel Faten / The Servant? What about Ghada Abdel Aal’s I Want to Get Married, trans. Nora Eltahawy, as a jumping-off point to discuss the maqama tradition, the translatability of humor, and notions of gender?

Of course these books haven’t been “banned” from anyone’s curriculum — or, at least, not to my knowledge — and the fights over what’s “appropriate” is an important topic. But so are the quieter battles over what is included, and isn’t.


  1. Beautifully stated, MLQ. Would love to see this have more play. How about submitting as an op-ed piece to a newspaper?

    1. Oh, but I would have to clean it up for that. & I’m still behind on cleaning up my “bridges” piece for wider publication. Maybe I should just start writing cleaner in the first place…

      1. Oh don’t do that. Writing clean is no fun at all! Reading clean stuff is even worse!

  2. This is a good point but I think this underestimates what censorship can do. In order for a clever reader to find the book, they need to have knowledge of where one could buy banned books, something probably not everybody knows, and more crucially, they need to know that the book exists in the first place. Sometimes if the act of censorship is made public, this can make the censored material gain popularity or at least notoriety, but if that isn’t the case – e.g. Chinese blog services that automatically remove content as it’s posted based on keywords – and it can make it unlikely that most people ever encounter the book or idea. Basically I think it can remove the idea/book etc. from public discourse. This is like the idea that you can’t kill an idea – you can’t, but repressive tactics can force it thoroughly into the margins. The ability of an individual reader to get around the censorship is significant, but I think that misses a big part of what censorship can do.

    1. Yes, and I am conflating here many different levels of censorship, all of which probably deserve different names. There are the sorts of censorship that intimidate an author into not writing, the sorts of censorship that hamper distribution, the sorts of “book banning” that simply ignore / dis-include a large part of the writing world.

      I am here not really talking — or I shouldn’t be talking — about Saudi / Kuwaiti censorship but the sort of limitations on discourse in the US. While the focus in “banned books week” is all about sexual content & a few other “naughty” things in teen lit, it really also needs to focus on other ways the artistic discourse is limited.

      Yes, the kids in Randolph County don’t get enough “Invisible Man” — and having it removed from the library is significant — but I doubt the kids in Orange County or Wake County or Whatsit County do, either.

      1. Although I do still think the most important forms of censorship are the ones that prevent an artistic (or other) work from being created in the first place.

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