Ninety years ago, university students in Nazi clubs led an enthusiastic crowd in the burning of more than 25,000 “un-German” books in a Berlin public square. These purges, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, occurred in thirty-four university towns across Germany. In the aftermath of the book burnings, the Nazi regime raided bookstores, libraries, and publishers’ warehouses to confiscate materials it deemed dangerous. The censorship was an early step toward transforming that country from a democracy to a dictatorship.
Writing these historic facts instills fear in me. I hope it does for you as well. We live in a precarious cultural moment.
During the American Booksellers Association (ABA) Community Forum held May 25, a Texas bookseller brought up Texas House Bill 900, which requires book vendors to review and define books sold to public schools as being sexually explicit or sexually relevant, among other stipulations. The Texas Senate passed the bill just a few days before the forum, with Governor Greg Abbott expected to sign the bill into law. Clearly, as the bookseller pointed out, it will make it all but "impossible to sell books to schools" in Texas. The publishing industry relies on bulk purchases by schools and libraries, exactly the slice of the market that has become a battleground for a larger culture war. And though Texas is the first state to do this, it will most likely not be the last and won't exclusively affect indies but also companies like Barnes & Noble and Scholastic.
Other states have joined the book banning bandwagon. The ABA and two independent bookstores (WordsWorth Books in Little Rock and Pearl’s Books in Fayetteville) will be filing suit alongside a number of other groups challenging Arkansas Act 372, which limits minors' access to books and other materials deemed "obscene.” This means booksellers have to choose to either limit all the books on our shelves to materials acceptable for the youngest readers or exclude all minors from the bookshop.
The Arkansas suit is the second major lawsuit against the wave of book bans in many parts of the country. It follows by two weeks the lawsuit filed by PEN America, Penguin Random House, authors, and parents against the Escambia County School District and School Board in Florida over book bans and access restriction in the area's public school libraries. Dozens of books, including Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Judy Blume's Forever, are targeted. Since this filing, there has been increased media focus on book bans, including widespread attention on a school in Miami-Dade's decision to restrict Amanda Gorman's poem, The Hill We Climb, read aloud at Joe Biden's 2021 inauguration.
One book, Gender Queer, has become a national lightning rod for book banning in schools and libraries, which has reached the highest recorded level since 1990 when the American Library Association (ALA) began tracking challenges. In 2021, the number of attempts to remove books jumped from 156 the previous year to 729. According to an article about book banning in The Atlantic, restrictions are expected to be even greater this year.
The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has a telling statistic: It estimates that a staggering eighty-two to ninety-seven percent of book challenges go unreported. “For every challenge that hits the headlines, there’s probably five to eight challenges behind it that don’t,” said ALA’s Deborah Caldwell-Stone. That means the overwhelming majority of banned books don’t even make it beyond the school-board minutes and the local paper. We hear about bans increasing book sales, but that’s only when they are accompanied by a media blitz. Given the decline of local news over the past two decades and the fact that book sections have long been among the first to be eliminated when newspaper budgets are slashed, the percentage of unreported book challenges may worsen.
Typically, books are challenged by local community members. However, forty-one percent of the bans tracked by PEN America from July 2021 to March 2022 were “tied to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books in schools.” In addition, according to articles in The Guardian and Salon, there are connections between wealthy donors and advocacy groups, such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education, which are spearheading ban efforts in some states and providing a playbook for others.
Judy Blume Forever, a streamed documentary on Prime, reminds us that in the 1980s the Moral Majority began to promote book banning, led by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan. Forty years later book banning has returned with a vengeance. Three-quarters of the 1,100 books currently banned in public schools and libraries have been written by authors of color, LGBTQ+ authors, and other traditionally marginalized voices or deal with difficult issues such as sexuality, slavery, and racism. While a recent ALA poll showed broad public opposition to book bans, there is clearly a disconnect between what most persons want and the actions of some elected officials.
We at Gramercy Books believe that the freedom to read is foundational and produces engaged well-informed citizens of the world. It is critical that all of us use our voices and our votes to fight these bans which attack our freedom of speech and are a threat to the democracy of our nation.
If you would like to get involved, here is a partial list of organizations fighting book bans:
-The American Library Association https://www.ala.org/
-Freedom to Read Foundation https://www.ftrf.org/
-National Coalition Against Censorship https://ncac.org/
-American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression https://www.bookweb.org/abfe-free-speech
-American Civil Liberties Union https://www.aclu.org/
Written by Linda Kass
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. My second historical novel, A Ritchie Boy, was inspired by my immigrant father's role as a military intelligence office in World War II. My third novel, Bessie, a fictional portrait of Bess Myerson's early life, will be released in September of 2023. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.