You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.


This post will go out on the first day of Banned Books Week, September 21-27, in honor of those who fight to protect our right to read and write.

YCRT! Banned Books Week Editorial

Every year conservative pundits line up to tell us Banned Books Week is a hoax, claiming books aren’t banned in the USA. In the years I’ve been writing these YCRT! posts, more than one reader has called me a liar for saying books are banned. Here’s my response:

I find I have to explain my use of the word “banned” every now and again. My position is this: any time people try to keep other people from reading a book, they’re trying to ban it.

Not a week goes by in this country without parents in one state or another showing up at school board meetings to demand certain books be removed from reading lists and libraries. Not a week goes by without some school board caving to parental pressure and pulling controversial books from the shelves.

Whether or not the same books are available on-line or in local bookstores, the intent of parents and school administrators who take these actions is to keep others from reading the books in question. That is the very definition of banning.

We no longer ban books at the national level, but we used to. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, for example, was banned in the USA from its publication in 1934 until the Supreme Court overruled the ban in 1964. Even during the days when books were literally banned in the USA, though, conservatives advanced the argument that such books weren’t really banned, because you could always hop on an ocean liner, go to Paris, and buy copies there. Conservatives today are merely recycling the same argument: you can still buy Captain Underpants and Heather Has Two Mommies at Barnes & Noble, so what’s the problem?

The problem is people who disapprove of books trying to keep other people from reading them. They may no longer be able to ban books nationwide, but they’ll do whatever they can to get the books they hate removed from local school libraries and reading lists. Sometimes they’ll even try to prevent fellow adults from reading books they disapprove of, targeting public libraries and commercial book stores.

There’s only one verb for that. That verb is ban. There’s only one adjective for books that have been removed from school libraries and reading lists. That adjective is banned.

But fine, if you don’t value my opinion, here’s what Merriam-Webster says about the word “ban”:

… to prohibit especially by legal means (ban discrimination); also: to prohibit the use, performance, or distribution of (ban a book) (ban a pesticide)

And under examples, they include this:

The school banned that book for many years.

Yes, Virginia, books are banned in the USA, and they’re banned all the time. When people quit trying to prevent me or my children from reading books they don’t like, I’ll quit using the word, but not until then.

YCRT! News

This is horrific: a Maryland middle school teacher was given an involuntary “emergency medical evaluation,” suspended, then barred from setting foot in any other public school. What did he do? He wrote a science fiction novel. Under a pen name. Set 900 years in the future. Containing a school shooting scene. A word from another science fiction novel springs to mind: thoughtcrime.

As reported in a previous YCRT! post, pastors in Austin, Texas are trying to ban 75 books from public libraries, saying the books in question have occult or demonic themes and will corrupt young readers. Local citizens are fighting back, along with First Amendment supporters around the country, and Austin’s head librarian is standing firm: the books remain. In a baffling compromise, however, Austin libraries will not observe Banned Books Week this year. Sure, that’ll get the pastors off your back!

In another YCRT! post, I asked this question:

What if book banners, after challenging books on school and public library shelves and being defeated, start demanding balance as compensation? One Chick tract for every YA novel, one copy of The Turner Diaries for every copy of To Kill a Mockingbird? Hey, you read it here first!

Just such a demand is being made by the Illinois Family Institute, which previously tried, and failed, to have books taking a neutral view on the nature and morality of homosexuality removed from public libraries. Now they propose adding explicitly anti-homosexual-themed books, some little more than religious tracts, to library shelves to provide “balance.”

Qualified good news: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, banned last year by the West Ada School District in Idaho, has been reinstated, albeit with restrictions more appropriate to the handling of AIDS-infected biological waste: if it is assigned alternate choices must be offered, students must have signed parental permission to read it, and teachers are not allowed to read from it out loud in class.

YCRT! Arizona Update

In Arizona, the two leading elected officials behind Tucson Unified School District’s notorious 2012 book banning and sudden cancellation of Mexican-American studies classes, Attorney General Tom Horne and Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, have been ousted in primary elections (though both are still serving until the end of their respective terms in office).

Horne had been Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction before being elected attorney general. When he held his previous office he came out against Mexican-American studies and related textbooks, calling such teaching civilizational war. He went on to characterize Mexican-American and Native American history as being something other than “Greco-Roman” and thus not part of Western civilization. At one time he announced his intention to fire public school teachers with Mexican accents.

Huppenthal implemented his predecessor’s policies, forcing Tucson schools to cancel its Mexican-American studies program and impound all related textbooks and study materials. At his direction, in January 2012, TUSD officials walked into MAS classes in mid-session, confiscated books (literally crating them in cardboard boxes marked “banned books”), and sent bewildered students to study hall to kill time until TUSD could figure out what to replace the MAS classes with.

Apart from that, Huppenthal apparently spent his time in office shilling for private charter schools, editing his Wikipedia entry, and posting what he thought were anonymous sock-puppet comments to political blogs, including these gems:

“The Mexican American Studies classes use the exact same technique that Hitler used in his rise to power. Take an historical example of injustice, cast it in racial terms and fan the flames of resentment. This technique is the exact technique of Mexican American studies. Complete with fueling resentment of stolen land. In Hitler’s case it was the Sudetanland. In the Mexican American studies case, it is Aztlan.”

“We all need to stomp out balkanization. No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish tv stations, no spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English.”

“I don’t mind them selling Mexican food as long as the menus are mostly in English. And, I’m not being humorous or racist. A lot is at stake here.”

Charming, no? Good riddance to them both.

Update (9/25/14): Reference the story about the Maryland teacher who was suspended after writing a science fiction story under a pen name, see the comment below for additional information that throws an entirely different light on the story.

One thought on “You Can’t Read That!

  • I cross-posted this YCRT! column to Daily Kos, where reader Catte Nappe left this comment, which throws another light on the story of the Maryland teacher who was suspended for writing a science fiction story. I should have known not to trust the initial reports!

    More complicated than in earliest reports, according to some of the local media coverage in that area.…
    Some reports indicate the teacher’s complaint may have stemmed from McLaw having used her name for one of his books characters.

    There was also a four page letter he sent the school that they found alarming.

    Maciarello said he only released portions of the letter, which was pertinent to why health officials believed McLaw needed to be evaluated. In the letter, McLaw said recipients could consider it his “memoir,” “farewell address” or “resignation,” and that he just wanted to be heard, according to Maciarello.
    The letter was entered as an exhibit in a hearing before an administrative judge last week regarding McLaw, Maciarello said.
    Moore said the letter was open to any number of interpretations — including that McLaw was simply writing a farewell to his employment.

    A lawyer for Patrick McLaw says he is “troubled” by the release of information about his client and surprised by the national attention the story has gotten.
    “Initially, he made one person uncomfortable and that’s what generated this,” Moore said. There is no record of threats or stalking or a “capacity to create any harm.”
    As for McLaw’s relationship with the teen, Moore said it was a separate issue and the release of information about any investigation concerning that relationship “really muddies the waters.”
    Moore said his primary focus has been and must be on his client.
    “Patrick is receiving treatment. He’s in a good place,” Moore said. “I hope he will receive the appropriate treatment.”
    Apparently once the uproar got going and they searched his property they found a detailed scale model of the school, which (probably in conjunction with the topic of the books) caused them further alarm.

    In a phone interview from Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore, where McLaw is being treated, he says he does not need a mental evaluation.
    “They have been disseminating information incorrectly to the psychiatrist and medical professionals up here who have been making diagnosis that, you know, are invalid and irrelevant,” McLaw said.
    Investigators say inside of a shed, they recovered a handmade model of a school.
    But McLaw says what has been taken as a threat is nothing more than a hobby.
    There appear to have been no more reports since early September, but all indicators so far do point to the possibility he has some mental health issues.

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