Book banning in the internet age

What the fight over an old format says about us now

I thought books were falling out as a culturally influential form. If anything, the recent growing popularity of book bans signifies otherwise.

In January of this year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus was banned in Tennessee classrooms for nudity and curse words. And 330 suits to ban other books from schools and libraries are gaining traction around the United States.

What Maus meant to me

I read Maus when I was a kid. From what I remember, the book depicts the terror of the Holocaust, but for a “graphic novel,” it isn’t particularly graphic. It introduced me to real, human tragedy in a personal way. It plays on the motif of anthropomorphic animal characters common to children’s books.

The author, Art Spiegelman, walks the line between content and genre. Looking back, for me, the book was an early step between childhood and maturity.

For a graphic novel, Maus is groundbreaking work. It was used in a foundational 2008 scholarly article that analyzed how the children of Holocaust survivors — or survivors of any traumatic event — inherit trauma.

It’s a gift to have an innovative author like Spiegelman working in an accessible medium for kids.

I was surprised to read it was being banned for profanity and nudity because that’s not what I took away from the book. Maus does include nudity and curse words. It deals with violence, death and suicide, but I think the portrayal of those things isn’t wrong in all contexts. In the right way, a good education should deal with heavy topics. Is it a coincidence a book pushing the boundaries of content and genre is being targeted?

Battleground books

Many of the other books currently being targeted by bans explore gender and race, such as “Alex Gino’s Melissa (a middle-grade book about a trans child, formerly published as George) and Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (a young adult adaptation of Kendi’s research on racism in America),” as reported by Vox.

Much of the language used to target these books is about the sexual content of books exploring gender in society or about the political content of books concerning the systemic racism in our institutions and society. This language veils ignorant and bigoted rationale for trying to ban these specific books.

Book bans bring to mind extreme government control, which is why I find it interesting that conservatives, who typically fight for less government control and freedom of speech, are the ones pushing these bans

We might be relegating books to symbols when we argue over them more than we read them. But books have always been symbols of status, intelligence and beliefs. Even as books trend out of popularity in favour of other forms of entertainment, like the internet and TV,  they continue to show our values through what we fight to teach our children about the world and put in print.

Does banning books work?

The call to ban these books is coupled with growth in interest and sales of those books. The Guardian reports sales of Toni Morrison’s Beloved have increased in Virginia where it came under fire. These bans seem to boost sales of books that are already popular, while lesser-known books see less of a bump.

Considering how much attention banned books garner, banning books to express values and change what children learn doesn’t always work. Just like books, book bans are more symbolic than anything else.

It proves books, especially in the context of education, are still seen as a culturally influential form. People care about what we teach our kids, so they care about what we put in print.

At the beginning of the internet age, when everything became accessible online, books seemed to fall out of perceived importance. The rise of internet entertainment in the early 2000s marked the start of a steady decline in reading for fun. The recent resurgence in book bans shows books are still a form we care about but in a different way. 

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Luther Hewitt-Smith