This has been a quieter, more reflective observation of Banned Books Week in our store, and I think it might have been so in other places, too. We look forward to this week on the calendar as one of those absolutes of independent bookselling, like the annual observance of Indies First and the weekly Tuesday launch of new titles. It’s part of what makes us “indie” – we pause to make a fuss, along with our colleagues in the public and school library system, about the challenges of access to books that have been confronted in the last year. We marvel at the repeat titles (“Really? Someone still objects to that?”), we shake our heads ruefully at the lack of understanding demonstrated by groups who choose to protest books (that they haven’t even READ in their entirety!), and we admire our stalwart champions in schools, libraries and universities who battle these onslaughts.
Surely, we think, in a time when information and unrestricted physical access are as easy as the click of a cursor or a finger on the screen of a tablet…. surely, now, we don’t need to waste time or energy trying to ban old-fashioned print books? When the nightly news contains more horror and violence than can be invented in any dystopian YA fantasy series, when sexual content is presented without filter as advertising for consumer products, and when hatred against people for differences as insignificant as hair color are commonplace front page news…. surely, now, there is no need to remove books from curriculums or library collections? But challenges to content continue, and brave colleagues saddle up yet again to defend, to explain, to invite others into a world where we read broadly to understand deeply.
This year, however, is different. This year, in a time of political unrest and struggle for individual voices to be heard, we were rocked by #metoo. We wept as colleagues recounted stories of betrayal and abuses of power, we listened as painful memories were detailed and corroborated by stories from other members of our bookish community, and we mourned as we set aside our idealized visions of literary icons, no longer as heroes, but as part of the “other.” We saw our own community divided, and felt the enemy within. The world of books, and those who love them, had always been a safe space for many of us, and our shared world of imagination and words was a tightly bound fraternity. Suddenly, however, this world was just a reflection of the nightly news, just as sullied and sinister as the rest of the ugliness outside the safety of our shelves. This year, some of those titles at the top of the list of books that were challenged and banned were written by authors accused of those very abuses. This year, we looked at that list of books with sadness, not just for the readers who were prevented from seeing them, but for the heartache and divisiveness they represent to colleagues in our community.
How, then, as booksellers, do we respond? I have struggled, as a store owner, with this list and this week more this year than in any other in my bookselling career. My staff and I have had numerous discussions in the last few months, and as I typically ask them to create displays and develop our visual merchandising, I wanted to get their responses to how we highlighted books from the Top Ten Banned Books list for 2017 produced by the ALA. As a small specialty store, we recognize that we can’t carry everything, even everything that we think is good. What we can do is read what we stock, handsell what we display, and share our personal reviews and recommendations. When it’s appropriate, we can also tell stories about the authors that wrote those books – perhaps after hosting them in the store, seeing them at a conference, or meeting them at a dinner or publisher event. We try to make every book we carry special, just as we believe every customer who reads with us is valuable. Most importantly, we want to share quality writing, and we want our customers to see us as ambassadors to great books, rather than border guards to a limited world of restricted access to literature. So it seems easy, then, to use phrases like “the book must stand alone” when questioned about promoting a title from an author who has been accused of something horrid – we focus on the book, not the contributor. We pull back from what feels like constraint, we allow our customers access to books that we feel are worth reading, and we let them choose how to spend their book buying dollars. We separate what we know about the author in favor of offering access to the work… which, truly, is what makes bookselling the fiercely democratic institution that we love. I strongly believe that we cannot stand between our readers and good books by placing boundaries, and that good books must be judged only by what is on the pages inside. And yet, I look at that display with heartache, and carry the pain of those who see those authors’ names as barriers to their own inclusion and membership in this literary family.
Here’s what I wish: I wish we could make Banned Books Week about those librarians and educators and school board members who fought to keep titles on their school reading lists. I wish we could have posters of those women (OK, I’m sure that some of them were men, too) who stood up at meetings and listened to objections about books containing cuss words or making out or suicide by teenagers… and explained why those were exactly the titles that kids needed to read. I wish that their speeches were quoted in press releases, and produced on shelf talkers and bookmarks. I want to celebrate those brave people who fought for content, who fought for readers, who were there without overtime pay in hearings and council chambers and committee meetings with bad coffee. I wish that we could make this less about the titles, this year, and more about the freedom to read. For there are heroes, there. And I want to follow them.