Every September, Bookmans stores across Arizona fight censorship with a few programs, one of which is the Save-a-Book program. Books that have been banned or censored are wrapped in paper and sold blindly; the only information given to the customer is a short description, the genre, the year it was written, and why the book was banned or challenged. A banned book, obviously, is one that has been removed entirely from a space like a library or school. A challenged book, meanwhile, is one that has only been requested to be removed from a space.
In early September, my girlfriend Haley and I went to the Flagstaff Bookmans location for reasons unrelated to any of the censorship programs. She likes the coffee at their cafe, and I wanted to trade in an old laptop and look at video games. We more or less stumbled upon the Save-a-Book display and started reading the short descriptions taped to each book, trying to guess what each of the books were. Some of the books were iconic and easy to guess, like a book about burning books and dealing with the temperature at which book paper burns (Fahrenheit 451)—also, I would like to take a moment to briefly mention the sheer irony of Fahrenheit 451 being banned—or a dystopian society where a young boy receives memories from an older man and sees color for the first time (The Giver). We could’ve spent hours there just trying to guess what the books were, save for the fact that there were only about fifteen books out on the display at the time, and we just couldn’t crack a handful of them. Ultimately, we each chose one, bought it, and then ran to the car to open them up. It felt like Christmas morning but for nerds.
Haley ended up picking out In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, a true crime thriller about a 1959 murder of a Kansas family that was banned for violence, sexual content, and profanity. I picked out Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, a novel about a fictional tragedy that happened at a high school in New Hampshire. Nineteen Minutes was challenged for depicting acts of sex and violence. In various states, parents pushed to have both books removed from high school curricula entirely, with varying degrees of success, but the ultimate question that can be asked of these books, and of any banned book at all, is who decides what entire schools of children should read? Who decides what entire societies should read? Why should any one group of disgruntled readers have that kind of power?
Recently, a Mississippi school district banned To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum, citing that the book made some people feel uncomfortable, despite the fact that those uncomfortable feelings are quite literally the point of the book. The book deals with themes of racism and rape, and the consequences of prejudice; it is not a feel-good story. In Cold Blood examines the happenings of a real-life murder, in the way that investigative journalism might do exactly the same. It isn’t meant to make the reader feel comfortable or good, it is meant to tell the story, and to inform. Nineteen Minutes examines the nature of traumatic events and human reaction to those events, and to each other. It is not meant to make the reader feel comfortable or good! These novels, in many ways, are all seeking to look at and examine topics that are difficult, to delve into them, and help the reader reach an understanding. They’re not meant to be easy reads by any stretch of the imagination.
There is, of course, always the argument that these are important books to read, sure, but they’re for adults only, and that assertion is false as well as it is harmful. To assume that high school students don’t have the maturity or mental capacity or grace to deal with such controversial topics as racism and sex and murder sells short the intellect of every single one of our nation’s young people. If In Cold Blood is difficult to get through because of its depictions of violence, a high school student has in them the power to say so, and to ask for help, or to outright admit that the information might be triggering. It may even the responsibility of a teacher or instructor and the high school’s administration to offer some sort of trigger warning on these kinds of books, but it is in no way their job to tell their students what they are and are not prepared to consume. That can only be decided by the students themselves on a case to case basis.
Furthermore, to postpone the reading of novels like To Kill a Mockingbird until adulthood prevents younger students, white students specifically, from examining their own potentially racist behavior and curbing it in their youth. This is not meant to imply that adults cannot change their ways, just that an interest in the proper treatment of all people at a young age can prevent mistreatment in the first place, and can preempt it rather than looking to make up for it after the damage has been done. The important lessons about life that can be taught at an earlier age should be taught at that earlier age, and again, if a student has trouble moving through the novel, it is within their rights to ask for help with it, either academically or psychologically. Schools’ duty should be to make the learning environment as safe as possible, not cleanse it of controversy entirely.
It is true that in many cases, the push to ban books begins with parents, not schools, but again, there comes the question of why parents who are made uncomfortable by the depictions of violence in Nineteen Minutes should decide that an entire high school population should not be reading that book. The selling short of intellect doesn’t only happen at school, it happens at home. Parents should absolutely concern themselves with the type of media their children consume, for various reasons that can and are decided by each family unit; I am certainly in no position as a college student with no kids to tell parents how to do their jobs. I think there should, however, be an understanding that the barriers to entry for books are much higher than for TV shows or movies, by which I mean that there is no one on this planet who wants to waste their time reading a book they know they won’t like. If a student stumbles upon In Cold Blood and they’re simply not interested in crime novels, they’re not going to read the book. People will, on the other hand, watch bad TV, and fully admit to it, because bad TV has a mind-numbing effect. The sales for The Emoji Movie say enough about the public’s willingness to see bad movies as a joke. Books, because of the amount of time and focus they take to consume, are a fundamentally different type of media, and students can and will decide for themselves whether they want to spend their time on a book or not, and if they do want to expend energy on a book, it’s more likely than not they’re going to go that extra mile to push past the discomfort and controversy to understand the messages. Parents in these cases should probably trust the intellect of their students.
In the case of a book that’s being taught in school, again, if a student finds that the material is hard to understand or parse, or is simply triggering, the student should absolutely feel comfortable going to their parent, but again, again, again, schools should have safeguards in place such as trigger warnings, further help on comprehension, and even counseling if need be. This may not prevent discomfort, but it will allow students to know it’s there before they enter into the novel, and either work something out with their teachers, or sort of mentally fortify themselves for the types of discussion they’ll be having. In this case, parents may express discomfort at their children being required to read such uncomfortable and controversial material, but if the school has safeguards in place, parents may be more willing to relax and trust their child’s educators. If that is not the case and parents still wish for their student not to read the book, it may simply be that that student reads another book, but the wishes of those parents, and of a group of parents, are not implemented on the entire school or over the entire curriculum.
No group of people should tell another group of people what to think or read, or how to feel about what they read, and I don’t want my access to books to be limited because a section of the campus says I shouldn’t be able to access it. To say that books like In Cold Blood, Nineteen Minutes, and To Kill a Mockingbird have no place in schools or libraries is to limit the body of knowledge that we as a society have the opportunity to share with one another. These books are worthwhile because they have important messages and they explore important events and topics, and I would go so far as to say that I don’t believe that any books should be banned. I think certain books are more worthwhile than others, and individuals of the public can decide that worth for themselves. Any book that spreads harmful ideas and hateful speech is one that shouldn’t be picked up by publishers in the first place as it should be the responsibility of publishers to disallow the spread of ideas that may lead to acts of violence against entire groups of people. I don’t consider this censorship because I don’t consider hate speech to be a protected form of speech; I would consider the act of rejection by the publisher to be a safety measure. While those authors can always self-publish, it will be to a much smaller audience, likely the same some kind of circle-jerk, echo chamber business that these ideas already exist in currently.
Censorship and the banning and challenging of books are practices that should themselves be challenged, and I’m grateful for bookstores like Bookmans that seek to do just that. Without having gone to their store and participating in their program, I’m not sure I’d be having these kind of discussions with my girlfriend or on this website. The discussion is important. Mark your calendars for September next year. Go to Bookmans. Save a book. Be uncomfortable and encourage the discomfort in others. Discuss and push back. Unchallenge, uncensor, and unban.
Then maybe go and spend your trade on an iced chai latte or something.