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Kit Dobson is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Calgary and author of the forthcoming novel We Are Already Ghosts.

The late Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison suggested that many of the attempts to ban or censor her books were “absurd.” As a new wave of censorship crests, this sentiment seems to be a shared one. Authors, illustrators and publishers are looking on with incredulity as new challenges to books surface in massive numbers in the United States. They are showing up in Canada, too.

Ms. Morrison, who passed away in 2019, is no longer able to comment on the ways in which her work is treated. This fact is a sad one because her advocacy for books and for libraries would be welcome in this time. Since her passing, her books have come under renewed attack: In 2022, her 1970 debut novel The Bluest Eye ranked as the third most challenged book in the United States, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

In the U.S., the ALA has recorded an alarming rise in attempts to censor and ban books. These range from individual parents objecting to materials in the curriculum and in school libraries, to a teacher in Texas being removed from a Grade 8 classroom for teaching an illustrated version of the diary of Anne Frank. In Canada, as in the U.S., teachers and librarians have been under attack for making available materials that include sexuality or LGBTQ2S+ content. This material has been frequently denounced as “pornographic.” The Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) reports 2022 as having been the year with the most incidents yet recorded of challenges to intellectual freedom.

School libraries in the U.S. have been temporarily shuttered in some counties out of fear of reprisal. In Canada, in turn, the Peel District School Board made headlines in the fall of 2023 when staff removed books written prior to 2008 in an effort to ensure up-to-date content. Across North America, we are scrambling to determine what to do with books. This topic is one that is often viewed as a staid, old-fashioned concern. It turns out that it is anything but.

Last May, Globe and Mail columnist Marsha Lederman documented the rise of book bans in the U.S. and noted that these bans risk spreading to Canada. She noted that these bans may already be having an effect on books that are being created, as authors begin to self-censor. How do we counter this? Among the points in Ms. Lederman’s essay: read banned books.

Reading banned books is, of course, not new. The advocacy group PEN (which originally stood for Poets, Essayists, Novelists) has long sponsored Freedom to Read events, while the ALA hosts Banned Books Week. In this time, when books are being virulently denounced in so many corners, reading these books takes on renewed weight.

My own response? Last fall at the University of Calgary, I taught a first-year course to nearly 90 students that I organized around the theme of banned and challenged books. Starting with D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (a book suppressed between its completion in 1928 and its vindication in courtrooms in the U.S., Canada and Britain at the turn of the 1960s) and working up to Maia Kobabe’s illustrated memoir Gender Queer (the most challenged book of 2022 according to the ALA, and in a tie for most challenged according to the CFLA) we have together taken on the task of studying some of the most controversial books of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Here’s what we found: Overwhelmingly, the books that are being challenged are by BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ authors. This discovery is not ours, however; multiple organizations have already observed this correlation. We also found that the books that we studied endeavoured to provide sincere, meaningful interrogations of social and cultural questions. We found very little pornography (none, in my view). We did not find books that were attempting to turn readers into anything other than their best selves.

We found that The Bluest Eye is a very challenging book. I argued – and I think that my students accepted the argument – that the novel’s depictions of racism and violence are not in themselves racist or endorsements of violence. Rather, Ms. Morrison’s novel depicts racism and horrifying violence in order to challenge the legacies and continuing, devastating consequences of racism and poverty. Importantly, we found that representations of things are not the things in themselves. We found, moreover, that we need to actually read texts in order to make this crucial distinction.

Here’s what else we found: Many attempts to ban books are being carried out in bad faith. One doesn’t have to go far to find people denouncing books that they haven’t read because the internet has already told them, in their view, all they need to know. When we honestly take on the task of reading these books, however, things change.

At their most extreme, attempts to censor books can be very ill-informed. Take, for instance, the successful attempt in a school in Florida’s Miami-Dade County to restrict Amanda Gorman’s poem in celebration of Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. The Hill We Climb is not a radical poem; it is a celebration of American institutions and of overcoming obstacles. Mistakenly identifying the author as Oprah Winfrey, a lone objector claimed the poem contains “indirectly hate messages.” This single objection proved to be enough to prompt the poem’s removal from the children’s section of a school library.

I view the loss of access to these materials to be tragic. I know, too, that, if left unchallenged, these attempts will not stop. They are spreading. They are increasingly well organized. It is up to readers to confront these challenges and bans with the assertion of the vital role that sharing information – sharing stories – plays in all of our lives.

My first-year class – while challenging and, of course, imperfect, as any class always is – left me with optimism. Overwhelmingly, my young university students did not want to be told what they could or could not read. They wanted to make up their minds for themselves. While cautious about considering what materials are appropriate for younger readers, they expressed concern and even alarm about censorship. If there is something to take heart in, it is this desire to have materials available, and to encounter them in conversation, in community and in dialogue with one another.

There is, perhaps, an additional silver lining: Books are not dead. After years of having to defend the vitality of my discipline of literary studies, today there seems to be little question that we need books more than ever. Attempts to censor literature are as old as ancient Greece; Plato denounced poetry for its falsehoods and banished poets from the ideal society. Nonetheless, poetry and literature return, again and again, as vital forces in finding solace, community and connection in a troubled world. So let us keep on reading banned books, for we have much to learn.

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