June 23, 2015

Two for Tuesday: How banned are the banned books?


(image via the ALA)

(image via the ALA)

Topics discussed: National Basketball Association, podcasts, In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg, You Must Remember This, Charles Manson, Karina Longworth, President Obama, WTF with Marc Maron, The Bugle, John Oliver, The Best Show with Tom Scharpling, W. Kamau Bell, Denzel Washington, Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time PERIOD, book publishing, the Hamptons, New Jersey, Upstate New York, Harper Lee, E.L. James, FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver, Bill Simmons, Jason Whitlock, American Library Association, #nevertweet, thinkpiecery, Ayn Rand, Jessamyn West, Rand Paul, Oberlin, censorship, banning books, funding gaps, right-wing disinvestment, Thomas Mann, Texas A&M,  Scott Sherman, Patience and Fortitude, Orientalism, Deep Purple

Mark: Hi Alex! How is your week going? And, much more importantly, have you listened to any good podcasts lately?

Alex: Hi Mark! Hi Two For Tuesdayers! My week is going great! I love hot weather—hot, humid weather in particular—so I have been very happy these last few days. (I am not being sarcastic.)

As for podcasts, we are entering what I call the “Hellscape,” the time between the NBA Finals and the start of the next NBA season, so this is a time when I start to hoard podcasts the way a squirrel hoards nuts—by hiding them indiscriminately in tiny holes I will never find again. But yes, I’ve found some good ones! In Our Time is outstanding and has been really wonderful for most of this season—though, now that I think about it, my man Melvyn Bragg really should do an episode about the NBA. You Must Remember Thiss series on Charles Manson and Hollywood is outstanding. Also, I didn’t expect to say this but President Obama on WTF was outstanding and moving and about as candid as one could expect. The Bugle is still hilarious even when John Oliver is off. The Best Show with Tom Scharpling is the North Star, and the rebooted, independent show has really hit its stride over the past two months.

How are you, Mark? Are you excited to be back on the Two for Tuesday wagon? (Or is it off the wagon?)

Mark: I’m thrilled to be on the wagon. I think it’s on the wagon. We should ask Wah-Ming Chang, our fearless and always correct managing editor, what she thinks. Wah-Ming, is it “on the wagon” or “off the wagon”?

Wah-Ming: Completely on the wagon.

And Obama sounded like a dad. Which was weird. But expected. And it was awesome. But I wish Maron had dug deeper. The way W. Kamau Bell digs deep about Denzel in Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time PERIOD.

Mark: Well, there you have it!

Though you have both beaten me to it, I’m excited to listen to President Obama’s interview with Marc Maron, mostly because there are no jokes I could make about it that the interview won’t have already prefigured. The entire premise of this interview is so wholly ridiculous that it’s a cultural artifact I’ll be able to enjoy without the need to outsmart it. And how often does that happen, Alex? Not often enough.

(I’m also looking forward to the Charles Manson podcast, because Karina Longworth is amazing. Unlike Charles Manson, who is only okay.)

But Alex! Let’s dive into the wild and wacky world of book publishing! It’s June, which used to mark the time when a certain sector of the publishing industry would begin to transition from New York-based to Hamptons-based. (That’s actually how they used to refer to it. Similarly, drinking four martinis at lunch marked a transition from being coffee-based to being alcohol-based.) But all that has changed! Now a certain smaller sector of the publishing industry transitions from New York-based to . . . what, upstate-based? New Jersey-based? I recently visited the offices of [fancy imprint at large publishing house] on a Friday, and all the editors were gone. Gone! And it wasn’t even June! Imagine how much more gone they are now.

But just because some of our fellow publishing professionals (a term I’m going to start using to describe you because I know it will make you enraged) are spending less time in their offices doesn’t mean that the work is slowing down. It’s not slowing down! We’re weeks away from Harper Lee’s assault on the bestseller lists and just a week out from E.L. James’s assault on the same. Those books are either already everywhere or will be soon enough, but let’s not talk about those books. Let’s instead talk about books that are being kept from readers by intolerant parents or vengeful librarians. (Usually the former.)

Alex, you pointed me to a very interesting article in FiveThirtyEight Life, a channel I’d never heard of on a website I’ve spent very little time reading since it launched last year. Tell me and our readers about it!

Alex: We should really do one of these that’s solely devoted to publishing in the summer. It is really quiet! Not at Melville House, of course, where we’re as busy as Santa’s elves all year round, but everywhere else! People don’t like working in the summer!

Anyway, you should read more FiveThirtyEight because they’ve been doing really interesting stuff, and because I think they’ve really hit their stride over the past three months or so, especially in their basketball coverage. I worry about the future of the site a bit—I wonder how Nate Silver feels after ESPN axed fellow vanity site runners Bill Simmons and Jason Whitlock—but there’s an increasing willingness to both stretch out and dig in and the results have been really great. Not quite Grantland great, but great nevertheless.

Anyway, yesterday FiveThirtyEight (OK, FiveThirtyEight’s Life vertical) published a fascinating piece about the ALA’s annual banned book list by David Goldenberg titled, “We Tried — And Failed — To Identify The Most Banned Book In America” about ALA’s famous lists of the most banned and challenged books in America. Why did they fail? Because the ALA wouldn’t share its data with Goldenberg. And why wouldn’t they share their data?

In my initial interactions with the ALA, a spokesperson offered to schedule an interview with someone “to get a perspective beyond the numbers,” but despite repeated requests, no one was made available. I was, though, given this statement: “OIF maintains the database for internal staff use, as a means of encouraging libraries to report challenges, and to create awareness of the importance of protecting and celebrating the freedom to read. Because the censorship database does not have the statistical validity demanded by many social scientists and researchers and may be vulnerable to misinterpretation and misuse, we must deny any request asking OIF to share raw data.”

The American Library Association is saying that its challenge database isn’t statistically valid and that despite the hundreds of news articles about its list, the database is not meant for public consumption. I sent a list of follow-up questions about the database and the publicity around it, but an ALA spokeswoman said no one would be able to comment until at least July, citing busy preparations for the organization’s upcoming annual conference.

Hoo boy, that is…. not a great look! The ALA’s list of most challenged books is a well-publicized rallying cry for intellectual freedom every year—we write about it regularly—and the ALA is not only saying that that list is not necessarily accurate, but they’re denying access to the data sample itself, which also means that they’re denying other possible interpretations of the data itself. Nate Silver, Mr. FiveThirtyEight himself, summed it up pretty succinctly when he tweeted “American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom opposed to intellectual freedom.” He’s not wrong! Right? What do you think, Mark?

Mark: Well, he’s wrong insofar as every tweet ever tweeted is wrong, because no one should ever tweet. (In other words, please #nevertweet.) But yes, I suppose he’s not wrong in this more specific sense.

I’m glad that Goldenberg is digging into this, if only because, as you say, these lists get so much attention that it’d be nice for everyone–the ALA, yes, but also everyone who reports on said lists–to be more explicit about what it is they’re talking about. The distinction between a banned book and a challenged book (and between a book that’s truly challenged and one that’s singled out by a random angry person) is an incredibly important one, and eliding it isn’t going to do anyone any good.

I certainly hope that Goldenberg gets the numbers that he’s looking for, and that going forward, the list of frequently challenged books will become reliable. That said, with your permission, I’d like to pivot into the dangerous world of thinkpiecery.

Specifically, I’m curious about why these lists attract so much attention every year when there’s such a big difference between, say, challenging something because you hate the content and challenging it because you don’t think it’s age-appropriate. (For example, I believe that the work of Ayn Rand is *hugely* inappropriate for anyone under eighteen: any young person who comes into contact with it immediately becomes really fucking annoying, and thus this act should be outlawed.) Goldenberg quotes librarian and activist Jessamyn West, who says that “We lose a bit of our rhetorical power when we put [these challenges] under the same umbrella,” and this is absolutely true. But why do we keep doing it?

Alex: I almost agree about Ayn Rand—I almost wrote Rand Paul, which lol—but I think I may be more forgiving. I feel like you should be allowed to read Ayn Rand before you turn 18 so long as you renounce her work by the age of 20. Think of it as something of a reversal of the stupid young liberal heart/old conservative head dichotomy that is stupid—If you don’t read Ayn Rand when you’re young you’re smart, but if you do read her you’re dumb, until you renounce her when you’re older and then you become smart again. OK, that may not be as snappy as I hoped it would be. I guess teens can keep their dang libertarian train books.

I think West is absolutely right here, which is entirely unsurprising because she is brilliant. If you care about issues like censorship, understanding real assaults on intellectual freedom is important—otherwise you’re just rallying around the flag, gesturing emptily towards your liberalism and against the perceived closed-mindedness of others.

That is, I think part of the appeal of the ALA list—it’s a way for us to stand up for what we believe in without consequences. The ALA list is a non-controversial list about books that we can all agree are non-controversial (or at least that they should not be controversial). I think people care about banned books in part because because sharing them feels like a political act—even if it doesn’t get anything done—and because it announces a set of priorities to your peers in a way that probably won’t alienate any of them. Book banning is bullshit, but taking a stand against it isn’t exactly the riskiest thing in the world.

That may seem cynical and myopic, but I don’t necessarily think its safeness means that it’s unimportant. Standing up for intellectual freedom—announcing that it’s a priority—is an important thing to do and it’s incredibly important that we do it regularly, even if it’s not risky, it is still important. The ALA banned book list is a way to do that—it doesn’t reflect the reality of censorship in America, but it’s probably the most regular and visible way for people to stand up for intellectual freedom. The list’s unreliability definitely affects its status, but I think in some ways the actual list itself is irrelevant. (That said, I’m sure it results in a huge boost in sales. So maybe not…)

At the same time, I also think that it’s a flag to rally around for embattled institutions—both public libraries and the ALA. Censorship and assaults on intellectual freedom are real issues that both organizations face and the banned book list is an excellent way to foreground both these issues and the value of these institutions themselves. The banned book list is an opportunity for libraries—they can circulate it to their communities to motivate their constituencies and make an argument for the value of public institutions that are devoted to intellectual freedom. This is also true for the ALA itself and that’s far more problematic—fudging data as a way of publicizing your own importance is, well, problematic seems like the best word, though I may be letting my Oberlin education go to far.

I’ll cut myself off here, though I will add that, if we’re going to talk about banning things, let’s ban the Confederate flag because fuck that stupid flag. Anyway, what do you think, Mark? Why are these lists so important?

Mark: I should say that it seems more than weird to be discussing hypothetical assaults on free speech in the midst of so much horrific violence, but thankfully, our readers don’t come to us for actual insights into current events, because we have none. Like, if you could have a negative amount of insights, that’s the amount we would have.

Is the ALA really “fudging data as a way of publicizing [their] own importance”? Or is this something far more prosaic: some exciting statistics that get a lot of publicity, and a lack of scrupulousness about the meaning and deployment of said statistics? Goldenberg is absolutely right to apply his techniques to the (lack of) data and to ask the questions he asks, but I don’t know that there was deliberate obfuscation at work (at least until he started asking questions!), so much as the absence of any real methodology to begin with. A collection of facts, rather than a definitive list.

Which, of course, is just speculation on my part, and which should not be taken for an excuse. I’m not excusing people who do bad things with data! (What should we call such people? Datarnishers? Probably not datarnishers.) But like you, I’m interested in what is to be gained from these conversations.

I agree that for the ALA and for public libraries, censorship can simultaneously be a fact of life and a sales pitch. This is also true for booksellers and book publishers and really anyone involved in books! Reading isn’t all that exalted an activity in the US, and even when it is, it’s very rarely a dangerous one. But danger and drama are selling and empowering. I’m reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks right now, and it’s a great book, but if an agricultural school somewhere were to ban the novel due to its still-controversial depiction of misdeeds in the grain trade, the experience of reading it would be way better. I’d be a part of something, rather than a guy reading the longest novel ever written about the city of Lübeck. I could write angry letters to Texas A&M! I could write tweetstorms! (By the way, Michael Schaub, could you take a two-hour drive to Texas A&M and try to make this ban happen? First you’d have to get Buddenbrooks included on a syllabus . . . but I’m sure you’re up to the task. I’d be very grateful.)

But these lists aren’t just important because of this frisson of controversy. They’re a way for institutions like libraries to emphasize their own critical importance even if, on a day-to-day basis, these are not necessarily the biggest issues they face. Declines in federal, state, and local funding are a massive threat to libraries, but what’s a more effective pitch: we fight for free speech or we do what we can to fight against a massive, right-wing-led reorientation of government support away from cultural institutions and toward already insanely rich people? These are both accurate pitches, but the former, I think, is pithier.

Scott Sherman’s marvelous book Patience and Fortitude, which we’re publishing today, shows how a group of concerned citizens organized to prevent the destruction and (literal!) hollowing-out of the New York Public Library. In that instance, the sales pitch was accurate: rich people really were conspiring to turn the NYPL against the public interest! But most of the time, the situation isn’t so clear-cut and the timeline isn’t so concentrated, which makes the case harder to make.

In other words, the banned book list will always attract more attention than the more prosaic–though arguably more existential–threats that libraries face every day. I’m confident that you can rally a much bigger group of constituents around censorship than around funding cuts.

Alex: I think that’s right, which is depressing—censorship is ironically more apolitical than funding cuts, and I think the ALA’s expectation (and maybe public libraries’ as well) is that it has more traction. That said, I’d be curious to see what would happen if there was a way to foreground funding cuts in as snappy a way as “Banned/Most Challenged Book Lists.” The biggest challenge facing libraries right now is funding and if libraries don’t get funding books will be effectively banned—they won’t be available for millions of Americans who count on libraries.

Speaking of America, here’s one thing I worry about here: that focus on books being challenged in America takes attention away from places where censorship is much more prevalent and much more insidious. Most of the challenges come from lone objectors—people like the mother of one of my classmates who objected to my high school’s “devil” logo and insisted that our underfunded high school would be more manageable if it was removed—and will come to nothing. Freedom of speech—to say nothing of other liberties—is under assault by repressive regimes throughout the world in much more serious ways than it is at home and I worry that the ALA list exaggerates the threat to our freedom at the expense of limitations on freedom in places like Syria and North Korea (and Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Russai, Tibet, and on and on and on). Those are issues where we are far more powerless, but also where there is no illusion of power. (Of course, focusing on minor problems at home doesn’t run the risk of Orientalism, so…. maybe I’m stuck.) Anyway, this is clearly a really complicated issue! Though I still think one thing is clear: the ALA should share its data with FiveThirtyEight and other members of the media, should they be interested.

One other thing should be clear, too. That Deep Purple rules. Here are two vintage tracks from a band that was much more than “Smoke on the Water.”