Our new recurring feature joins the chorus decrying book bans.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit my local library to explore a database that would otherwise cost the Independent thousands of dollars to access. I’d made an appointment, and the librarian, Pam, spent 90 minutes orienting me to the site. (If you don’t realize that I’m plugging the many wonderful resources public libraries provide, you’re not paying attention.)
As we discussed the Independent’s mission to support full access to the sharing of ideas found in books of all kinds, I asked whether her branch had experienced the recent, rancorous push to remove or restrict certain titles. She replied that some of their programming, especially anything related to LGBTQ+ topics, draws protests and attacks. Pam then admitted that when she first heard the name “Washington Independent Review of Books,” she was concerned we represented the side of suppression:
“I told my colleague, ‘If that’s true, I’m not sure I can [help them].’”
It’s an upside-down world we’re living in when librarians find themselves on the front lines of fiery culture wars, having to defend their mission to make books — and countless other resources — freely available to the community. There are so many stories about the latest attempts at censorship that it’s impossible to keep up with which school board or city council or (non-descriptively and blandly named) “parents’” group has demanded removal not just of books but often of funding for these small-D democratic temples of thought.
Nadine Farid Johnson, the managing director of PEN America Washington, joined us this past spring on our Washington Writers Conference panel “Muzzled Expression: The Alarming Rise in Book Bans.” As we continued the discussion afterward, she considered the crux of what was being targeted in these multiplying attempts to suppress both books and classroom subjects: “The culture is the way in because that’s what sparks the imagination.”
To succeed, authoritarian movements must crush imagination.
Happily, there’s a flourishing counter-movement pushing back. From Barack Obama’s open letter in support of librarians to PEN America’s Florida lawsuit, joined by Penguin Random House and a slate of authors, against Escambia County’s book restrictions; from Moms for Libros as an antidote to Moms for Liberty; and from Digital Public Library of America’s “The Banned Book Club” to MoveOn’s Banned Bookmobile, so many voices are raised in protest.
And now it’s time to add ours. We at the Independent know it’s shortsighted and reckless to suppress thought and ideas, whether by excising purportedly hurtful words from older works — Roald Dahl’s books are a recent focus — or through the blatant onslaught against books by BIPOC writers and LGBTQ+ topics. As one of our “Muzzled Expression” panelists noted, “You don’t post-edit a book or ban it; you engage with it, discuss it, subject it to critical thought, and then decide what you think about it.”
With that in mind, we’re pleased to introduce “And the Banned Played On,” an occasional feature in which invited contributors will discuss a besieged book and reflect on what that book means to them. We’ll also be investigating other ways to engage in what feels like an intensely fraught moment for the freedom to read.
The Independent’s very existence springs from a love of books and a desire to share that love far and wide. We know the mark of an effective book is not necessarily whether readers “liked” it, but whether it engaged them, made them think, and sparked their imagination.
The fueling of imagination: That’s what makes books dangerous. And that’s why we love them so much.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi is president of the Independent.