Essay: The Growing Battle of the Books

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Written words running loose have always presented a challenge to people bent on ruling others. In times past, religious zealots burned heretical ideas and heretics with impartiality. Modern tyrannies promote the contentment and obedience of their subjects by ruthlessly keeping troubling ideas out of their books and minds. Censorship can place people in bondage more efficiently than chains.

Thanks to the First Amendment, the U.S. has been remarkably, if not entirely, free of such official monitoring. Still, the nation has always had more than it needs of voluntary censors, vigilantes eager to protect everybody from hazards like ugly words, sedition, blasphemy, unwelcome ideas and, perhaps worst of all, reality. Lately, however, it has been easy to assume that when the everything-goes New Permissiveness gusted forth in the 1960s, it blew the old book-banning spirit out of action for good.

Quite the contrary. In fact, censorship has been on the rise in the U.S. for the past ten years. Every region of the country and almost every state has felt the flaring of the censorial spirit. Efforts to ban or squelch books in public libraries and schools doubled in number, to 116 a year, in the first five years of the 1970s over the last five of the 1960s—as Author L.B. Woods documents in A Decade of Censorship in America—The Threat to Classrooms and Libraries. 1966-1975. The upsurge in book banning has not since let up, one reason being that some 200 local, state and national organizations now take part in skirmishes over the contents of books circulating under public auspices. The American Library Association, which has been reporting an almost yearly increase in censorial pressures on public libraries, has just totted up the score for 1980. It found, without surprise, yet another upsurge:

from three to five episodes a week to just as many in a day. Says Judith Krug, director of the A.L.A.'s Office for Intellectual Freedom: "This sort of thing has a chilling effect."

That, of course, is precisely the effect that censorship always intends. And the chill, whether intellectual, political, moral or artistic, is invariably hazardous to the open traffic in ideas that not only nourishes a free society but defines its essence.

The resurgence of a populist censorial spirit has, in a sense, sneaked up on the nation. National attention has focused on a few notorious censorship cases, such as the book-banning crusade that exploded into life-threatening violence in Kanawha County. W. Va., in 1974. But most kindred episodes that have been cropping up all over have remained localized and obscure.

The Idaho Falls, Idaho, school book review committee did not make a big splash when it voted, 21 to 1, to ban One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—in response to one parent's objection to some of the language. It was not much bigger news when Anaheim, Calif., school officials authorized a list of approved books that effectively banned many previously studied books, including Richard Wright's classic Black Boy. And who recalls the Kanawha, Iowa, school board's banning The Grapes of Wrath because some scenes involved prostitutes?

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