Celebrating Your Freedom to Read: History of Banning Books

By: Ella Forsthoffer ’24

     While the fall season often generates collective excitement over popular holidays such as Halloween and Thanksgiving, it also includes a number of celebrations that are often overlooked. One of these important celebrations is Banned Books Week which takes place this year from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7.

     This special week honors the freedom to read and spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.

     It is critical that Banned Books Week receives more recognition because the problem of banned books is more prevalent now than ever. In fact, the American Library Association reports that there were a record-breaking number of attempts to ban books in 2022 – up to 38 percent from the previous year.

     Of those challenges, the organization notes, “the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.” 

     In order to gain a deeper comprehension of the significance underlying the creation of Banned Books Week, it is essential to explore the extensive history of book banning in the United States which stretches as far back as the formation of the first American colonies.

     In 1650, prominent Massachusetts Bay colonist William Pynchon published The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, a pamphlet that argued that anyone who was obedient to God and followed Christian teachings on Earth could get into heaven. This greatly contradicted Puritan Calvinist beliefs that claimed only a special few were predestined for God’s favor.

     Outraged, Pynchon’s fellow colonists denounced him as a heretic, burned his pamphlet, and banned it—the first event of its kind in what would soon become the United States. Only four copies of his controversial tract survive today.

     In the first half of the 19th century, materials about the nation’s most incendiary issue, the enslavement of people, alarmed would-be censors in the South. By the 1850s, multiple states had outlawed expressing anti-slavery sentiments—which abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe defied in 1851 with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

     As historian Claire Parfait notes, the book was publicly burned and banned by slaveholders along with other anti-slavery books.

     In 1873, the war against books went federal with the passage of the Comstock Act, a congressional law that made it illegal to possess “obscene” or “immoral” texts or articles or send them through the mail. Championed by moral crusader Anthony Comstock, the laws were designed to ban both content about sexuality and birth control—which at the time, was widely available via mail order. The act remained in effect until 1936.

     Even as many social norms relaxed in the 20th century, school libraries remained sites of controversial battles about what kind of information should be available to children in an age of social progress and the modernization of American society.

     The reasons for proposed bans varied with some books challenging longstanding narratives about American history or social norms and others being deemed problematic for their language or for sexual or political content.

     Librarians contended with so many book challenges that at the 1965 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting preconference in Washington, DC, the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) recommended an ALA unit be established to “promote and protect the interests of intellectual freedom.”  

     Librarian and freedom of speech proponent Judith F. Krug became director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association in 1967.

     Then in 1982 she officially co-founded Banned Books Week. She brought together a number of organizations to both raise awareness about commonly challenged books and First Amendment freedoms and to celebrate the freedom to read.

     While significant progress has been made with Banned Books Week reaching an estimated 2.8 billion readers, book challenges are still more common than ever. Between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, alone, there were 1,586 book bans in 86 school districts across 26 states—affecting over two million students, according to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free speech. Our own state of Texas led the charge against books with 713 bans; nearly double that of other states.

     Thus, it is crucial that during this week and all year round, we all join together in support of the free flow of information and ideas by reading and encouraging others to do the same.

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