Uproar Over Banned Books Turns Out To Be False Alarm

My love affair with librarians began when I was 4. A couple of weeks ago it ended - at least for a while.

These were the circumstances. A magazine editor asked me to write a piece on "Threats to American Freedoms." Casting about for a way to downsize this 6-foot salami, I recalled that the American Library Association had published a report some months ago on "Banned Books." Maybe the freedom to read was in danger. Could be.

So I got the report of the librarians' professional association. It compromises their integrity and leaves their credibility in tatters. The report is a hoax, and a cynical hoax at that, for its principal purpose is to protect the jobs of the scaremongers who put it together.

How many books were actually banned in 1994-95? You will never find out from the ALA report - at least you will not find out easily - for the authors of this slippery production play three-card monte with their own statistics.

The report was timed for publication in "Banned Books Week" in September. A glossy "Resource Guide," running to 136 pages, bears a blunt title: "Banned Books." Some sample advertisements dwell upon that word, BANNED. For example, "If you think the books you read aren't banned . . . think again." And, "Books are sometimes banned because of a single word." And, "I read BANNED books."

Ah, but the ALA's fabrication is not about banned books as such. It is about books that have been CHALLENGED. And it transpires that in 1994-95 many books were challenged, but exceedingly few were banned.

The report details 760 "challenges" to 164 books. Some titles, virtually all of them in school libraries, were challenged repeatedly. For example, parents in Lapeer, Mich., Chanute, Kan., and Lee's Summit, Mo., objected to "Annie on My Mind," by Nancy Garden. "Heather Has Two Mommies," by Leslea Newman, a book in praise of lesbian lifestyles, drew protests in Dayton, Ohio, and Oak Bluffs, Mass.

What happened to the challenges? It is amazing. If I am not mistaken, not a single book was "banned" by a public library in the period under review. Not one.

A relative handful of books were removed from school classrooms or libraries, but nearly all of these titles were only "temporarily" removed or "removed from class" or "removed from reading list."

If it were not for the school board in Oconee County, Ga., which banned nine titles, one would be hard put to find a dozen citations of books that were actually, permanently banned.

Many of the "challenges" were patently ridiculous. In the town of Coquille, Ore., population 4,481, some nut took a razor blade and mutilated three books. This is "censorship"? Bosh! This is vandalism.

In Tucson, some yahoo demanded that books of art by Renoir, Picasso, El Greco and O'Keeffe be removed from an elementary school library. The books contained pitchers of nekkid wimmen.

As usual, a few small minds focused on large books: In Putnam County, Tenn., the school superintendent pulled Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." Said he: "We just can't have this kind of book being taught."

In Bedford, Texas, a local bluenose demanded removal of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." This was because the mermaid was topless.

In two counties in Nevada, the American Heritage Dictionary came under fire. Churchill County removed it from school libraries. Washoe County was made of sterner stuff: Authorities temporarily removed the dictionary but restored it when the heat died down.

Running through the ALA report is this implicit proposition: School librarians are always right; parents are always wrong. When a librarian turns down a book as worthless, it is "professional judgment." When a parent urges that a particular book be removed, it is "censorship."

Well, I am not so sure about that. Ninety-one challenges went to books on homosexuality. Some titles had to do with occult themes. A number of parents objected to the schools' apparent sanction of pervasive vulgarity in fiction. What is the function of a middle school library? I doubt that one purpose is to teach 12-year-olds the arts of anal sex.

If publications were judged by their honesty, "Banned Books" would never make it to a library's shelves. Far from presenting an ominous picture, the ALA report, closely examined, is a heartening tribute to the common sense of librarians and school boards across the nation. Overwhelmingly they stood firmly in defense of the freedom to read. Good for them, and shame on the ALA.

(Copyright 1996, Universal Press Syndicate)

The Writer's Art by James J. Kilpatrick appears Sunday in the Scene section. Address comments or questions to: Writer's Art, c/o Newsroom, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.