Consider what gets left out of your standard anti-censorship success story. A few years ago, in Ruston, La., the Lincoln Parish Library removed several children’s books, including those with L.G.B.T.Q. themes, from general circulation. (These books became available to children only with permission from their parents.) A triumphant campaign in 2020 by the National Coalition Against Censorship led to the return of the books to general circulation.
In a statement endorsed by groups as varied as the American Library Association and the Unitarian Universalist Church, the coalition has claimed that such removals from libraries “not only violate the rights to freedom of expression and information of all community members, protected under the First Amendment, they endanger the well-being of the country’s most precious resource: its youth.”
Stirring stuff, no doubt. But where, one wonders, are the letters asking why in the library’s online catalog there are no copies of “The Power and the Glory,” no “Don Quixote,” none of Anthony Trollope’s novels? And why are the works of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the two most influential philosophers of the 20th century, absent? Or, sticking with children’s literature, where is E. Nesbit’s classic “Five Children and It” and Charles and Mary Lamb’s immortal “Tales From Shakespeare”? What about “Ulysses,” the subject of the most important obscenity trial of the last century? Does its absence mean that the novel has, in effect, been “banned” again?
One can certainly second-guess the wisdom of curatorial decisions made by the Lincoln Parish Library, but it’s disingenuous to do so in the name of “freedom of expression and information.” When challenging a book — that is, assessing it and perhaps arriving at a low estimation of its value — becomes synonymous with endangering children, what is being articulated is a preferred mode of engagement with texts that is essentially totalitarian. The only books whose authors have not intended them to be challenged are works of propaganda, which, no doubt unwittingly, is how the boosters of many contemporary would-be banned books seem to regard them.
This attitude toward reading — in which the only well-meaning response to a text is uncritical approbation, and anything else is tantamount to censorship — is not only disingenuous but ultimately, I think, also hostile to literature itself. If no book invites our disapprobation, what is the value of our esteem? Having renounced our ability to issue moral verdicts, we may find ourselves incapable of reaching aesthetic ones as well, and of exercising the critical faculties that both require.