Banned Books Week: a catastrophic threat to intellectual freedom

Banned Books Week: a catastrophic threat to intellectual freedom

Preserving the written word and intellectual freedom in the face of censorship

by Suswati Basu

In a world devoid of imagination, creativity, and a diversity of ideas, envision a society where certain books are deemed unfit for consumption. Such a bleak scenario is the essence of book banning and censorship, a practice that poses a significant threat to the freedom to read and the preservation of intellectual freedom. Banned Books Week, an annual event in the United States but marked globally, serves as a stark reminder of the dire consequences of suppressing literary works.

Should books ever be banned?

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.”

George Orwell, From “1984”

A vocal minority’s influence

Recent data from the Washington Post reveals a disconcerting trend: a significant portion of book challenges in the 2021-2022 school year were instigated by just 11 individuals. Among these, Jennifer Peterson stands out, having challenged a staggering 71 out of 73 books she encountered in a year, with the remaining two books removed before she could act. The power wielded by this vocal minority raises questions about the influence of censorship on our literary landscape.

Read: My Shadow is Purple author Scott Stuart on book bans extremism

However, the perspective of avid readers differs significantly. According to Book Reporter, only a handful of individuals, like Pat H., believe certain books should be banned. Pat’s view is clear: “The only reasons to ban a book are if it aided terrorists or gave specific instructions – ‘a how-to’ on making bombs, shooting down an aircraft, etc. OR if books are completely made up of profanity with no plot purpose.” This article was from 2006, however, and times have clearly changed – and not necessarily for the better.

What is Banned Books Week?

Banned Books Week, held annually during the last week of September, is organised by a coalition of organisations, including the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Booksellers Association (ABA). Its primary goal is to emphasise the significance of intellectual freedom and the right of individuals to decide what they read.

Imagine a world as bleak as this?

During this week, various institutions, including libraries, bookstores, schools, and community organisations, organise events such as readings, discussions, and displays to showcase books that have faced challenges or bans. These activities encourage open dialogue about censorship, the motivations behind book challenges, and the importance of diverse and controversial ideas in literature.

Read: School book bans: alarming rise as Florida takes lead

Books are often challenged or banned for a variety of reasons, including concerns about explicit content, offensive language, political or religious viewpoints, and more. Banned Books Week underscores the notion that readers should have the autonomy to choose their reading material and that censorship can undermine creativity, restrict access to information, and erode free expression.

A disturbing rise in book bans

Recent data from PEN America’s report “Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor” paints a troubling picture. In the 2022-2023 school year, book bans increased by 33%. Notably, over 40% of these bans occurred in Florida. The report highlights how state legislation and coordinated pressure campaigns from local groups and individuals have led to widespread restrictions on access to literature.

Expert perspectives on book banning

Experts in the literary sphere offer valuable insights into the motivations behind book banning. Madville Publishing owner Kimberly Davis told How To Be Books that books are being banned as part of a broader effort by conservative factions to control the population by limiting critical thinking. Such efforts, she argues, targets anyone threatening the status quo.

“Educated women and people of color threaten the status quo, and the establishment wants to attack us where it is really going to hurt more and more every generation as the ability to think critically dwindles.”


While Louisa Smith, founder of Epic Book Society, acknowledges that books are often banned to protect certain audiences, particularly children, from challenging content. While censorship in this context can be reasonable, she also stresses the importance of intellectual freedom for individuals mature enough to understand complex concepts.

Watch the interview: Book bans: Uncle Bobby’s Wedding sequel to be released by Sarah Brannen

She adds that there is something to learn from every book, such as “The Giver” by Lois Lowry, which has important messages of hope, individuality, and the importance of memory. She feels that these positive themes can be overshadowed by the themes in which it was banned – in this case euthanasia.

“[While] protecting certain audiences from harmful material is a justifiable concern, people who have matured enough to understand these concepts (i.e. when children turn into young adults) should have the intellectual freedom to choose what they read.”

Louisa Smith, Epic Book Society Founder

Additionally, internationally acclaimed ghostwriter and persuasive writing coach Joshua Lisec underscores the complexity of book banning, suggesting that some books are removed from libraries due to explicit content that may not be suitable for children. Lisec, who is the author of “So Good They Call You a Fake,” argues that these books are still accessible for purchase or checkout but should come with parental knowledge and approval.

“Parents en masse are organizing and peacefully protesting for the removal of books from their libraries including their school libraries that contain mature themes and overt sexual content including depictions of sexual activity. These are inappropriate for children; however, it is likewise inappropriate to say these books are ‘banned.'”

Preserving intellectual freedom

In the battle between preserving intellectual freedom and protecting sensitive audiences, the debate over book banning remains contentious. I often think about George Orwell’s masterpiece “1984”, as quoted above, and the scenes he predicted 75 years ago. While I am not going to skirt around his noted antisemitic beliefs, what it illustrates is the cognitive dissonance in our assessment of historical figures, reiterating the importance of critical thinking. It’s crucial to acknowledge his significant contributions while disagreeing with his bizarre backwardness in this area. This is exactly why we need to keep books in their place so we can have these debates, instead of erasing them.

Additionally, his book highlights the cyclical nature of authoritarianism and totalitarianism when historical memory fades. And even more so, when that past is completely denied through concerted efforts. A good example of this is the recent firing of a Texas teacher for reading the graphic novel version of Anne Frank, which frankly beggars belief.

As we spoke to authors Sarah Brannen and Scott Stuart about their banned works “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” and “My Shadow is Purple,” what is now clear is that the motivation behind books being challenged is by and large political. Hence Banned Books Week stands as a powerful symbol of the ongoing struggle to maintain open access to diverse ideas and to prevent the catastrophic consequences of censorship from becoming our reality.

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