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An Interview with Neal McCluskey: Are we in the middle of Banned Books Week?

Sep 28, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

  1. Neal, I have just heard we are in the middle of Banned Books Week – I did not even know there was such a thing. When the heck did this start and who started it ?

From what I can find, Banned Books Week was started in 1982 by anti-censorship activist Judith Krug, and has been largely championed by the American Library Association. I’m not sure how well known the week is, but I see it mentioned a lot as I study the effects of government-funded schools – and libraries – on a diverse society.

  1. I am currently reading David McCulloch’s latest book, and I am appreciative that the library ordered it. I am not sure WHO ordered it, and I rarely ask the library to order my books- but what are your thoughts in general about citizens asking that certain books be ordered?

If you pay taxes that support a public library you have every right to ask – heck, demand – that the library carry the titles you want. The reality, however, is that few if any public libraries could ever purchase every book anyone could ever want, and have to make decisions about what to purchase. Moreover, other taxpaying citizens might not want their dollars going to buy books you or I might like, and government is supposed to be prohibited from compelling support of speech.

  1. Now, on the other hand, I am not sure I want students in a grammar school or a high school reading pornography (whoever defines it, and however they define it) Your thoughts as a parent and or taxpayer?

I am inclined to agree, but it’s the “who defines it” question that is key. Different people will object to different things, and there is no definitive rule for what is or is not acceptable. There are no decency equivalents to the laws of physics.

  1. Now, who runs the American Library Association and what are their perspectives- or do they have a website where one can get their views?

The ALA is a professional association of librarians, and it’s stance on banned books seems to be that once a library purchases a book it is censorship, or an effort at “banning,” to attempt to get it removed. In contrast, they appear to be relatively silent on how books should be selected for acquisition – the ignored flip-side of government free speech violations. But readers would do well to learn about the ALA themselves rather than just using my quick summary.

Their website is http://www.ala.org/index.cfm.

  1. Neal, you and I know about committees—a kind of necessary evil-  but don’t we have to encourage Americans to meet with these supposedly representative committees?

I don’t think the ALA is likely to respond directly and meaningfully to concerned citizens, nor is that their job. The ALA is an advocacy group for librarians.

As far as getting involved in governance of public libraries, that won’t solve the problem.  Whether a bunch of people decide to purchase of jettison public library books, or a single librarian makes such decisions, the rights of anyone who disagrees with the decisions will be violated. Government will still be favoring some speech over other speech, and doing so with taxpayer dough.

  1. Neal, I do not even know any current French or Russian authors- but are we “ discriminating “ against Polish as well as Lithuanian authors who might write in English?

Could be, though I haven’t ever looked into anything like that. It does, though, get to a greater point: Librarians have lots of reasons they might select or eschew a book – the quality of the prose, a book’s cover art, popularity of the author – but all ultimately involve government deciding which speech it will favor. That is a violation of basic American principles, but it is unavoidable when government runs things like libraries.

  1. Now, what are these Cato books? Tell us about some of them, and where we can peruse them or learn more about them.

This must refer to my challenge: To show that book banning is just one side of the free-speech coin, check if your local library carries every Cato book ever published, and if they don’t scream “censorship!” Then see how they react to it being made clear that their not purchasing books is just as much an act of censorship as people trying to get books taken out of libraries. If it also happens to sell more wonderful, gripping, insightful Cato books – available for purchase at http://www.cato.org/store/books – well so be it. Freedom will be doubly advanced!

  1. Schools are supposed to be educational institutions. Should they have books by say Stephen King- which are really fiction?

That’s not for me to prescribe. Assigning Stephen King novels might be a great way to teach literature. On the flip side, it might be a total waste for kids who are clueless about basic grammar. Some people might consider King’s stories foul. Others insightful. The point is that different kids need different things, different people have different values, and what we need is not a single dictate for all of them, but educational freedom that enables unique people to teach and learn what they think best.

  1. Or should a school only have non-fiction?

Again, not for me to prescribe. Let a thousand flowers bloom – and compete!

  1. Let’s pick on a classic American piece of literature- Tom Sawyer- is there anyone out there who might feel Tom and Huck are inappropriate for the schools?

Absolutely! According to the ALA, between 1990 and 2001 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the fifth most challenged book, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the 84th.

  1. Neal, I skimmed that Twilight book when I was in a store to see what all the hoopla was about. While we want to encourage kids to read, I am not sure reading about how this girl’s heart raced when she saw Edward Cullen. Am I off on this?

I’ve never read any of the Twilight books nor have I even perused them. They might be garbage, or they might be a great way to get kids into reading. I just don’t want government deciding which is accurate for me or anyone else.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

I think you got to all the good stuff.

 

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