Those ALA Book "Bans"
Also: 2,000-year-old graves in Paris, in praise of irritation, and more.
There are 117,341 libraries in the United States. Most of those are libraries in public elementary and secondary schools—76,807 in fact.
Last month the American Library Association (ALA) released its annual report on the number of books “challenged”—it calls these “attempted book bans”—in all of the 117,341 libraries. Some books are challenged multiple times. Others are challenged once. How many unique books and resources were challenged last year? 2,571. How many challenges were filed in total? 1,269.
The ALA is pitching the number of challenges (1,269) as an alarming increase—up almost 50% from challenges filed in 2021. It has been tracking these for 20 years, and every year between 300 and 500 challenges are typically filed. So, 1,269 is indeed a big increase. Is it alarming? No.
First, 1,269 challenges across 117,000+ libraries just isn’t that significant. I am guessing that several libraries reported multiple challenges, which means that we are likely talking about less that 1% of libraries across America reporting a request from a patron or parent to remove a book. That would mean 99% of libraries reported no challenges at all.
Second, the ALA is describing these requests as attempts to curtail free speech, but most of them concern material that patrons or parents think is sexually explicit and don’t want their children to read. (The ALA says that “the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.”) This isn’t about asking the government to shut publishers down. It is (mostly) about determining what is appropriate for children and teens to read.
Over half of these requests (58%) were filed in public school libraries, and most of the “most challenged” books in 2022 were Young Adult titles treating transgenderism or homosexuality. Compare the top 10 challenged books in 2022 to the top 10 in 2001: In 2022, Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer leads the list, followed by George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue. In 2001, we have J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in the first and second spots.
If this is about parents overseeing the moral education of their children, why are there so many challenges all of the sudden? The New Republic thinks this is the result of a new right-wing paranoia:
The latest wave coalesced during that first hyper-online year of the Covid-19 pandemic, a time when conspiracy theory–thinking about vaccines and “communist China” plots and microchips and the evils of masks thrived on the right. First, they brought their fight to public schools, and from there the transition to public libraries was inevitable. A wave of Gen X and millennial parents flooded school board meetings, propagating their commentary online, then channeling it directly to Fox News, speeding up the cycle of theatrical grievance-mongering.
Like the narratives of earlier right-wing parents’ groups, the narrative in the 2020s is one of heroism, a battle against the all-powerful, perverse public institutions attempting to take their God-given control over their children. Their first target was the dreaded mask. Then, it was a telephone-gamed version of critical race theory, making it a flexible tag for any classroom material that talked about race, racism, or white supremacy. Then, it was “gender ideology,” rhetoric originally deployed by the Vatican against international women’s rights groups back in the 1990s, and now returned to the United States as a term to cast queer and trans studies as a tool for “sexualizing” children.
Well, there certainly is a fair bit of paranoia out there—on the right and the left. (Has a “wave of Gen X and millennial parents flooded school board meetings”?) But I think the increase is simply because there are more books today—particularly YA books—that are smuttier and far more political than 20 years ago. Pick up any catalogue or prize list to see this for yourself. In other words, I don’t think the increase is the result of radicalized parents as much as it is the result of radicalized YA publishers.
Speaking of paranoia, Theodore Gioia writes about the great plastic straw scare in Tablet. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a snippet:
A few years ago, a moral panic spread across the globe as governments, companies, and right-minded celebrities united to banish plastic straws from respectable society. The impetus for the crusade came after a decade of data about the imminent environmental dangers of single-use plastic. Most of all, however, one peculiarly specific number inflamed the activist imagination, a single statistic lodging itself deep in the conservationist’s bleeding heart: 500 million plastic straws are used in the United States every day.
But a movement cannot live on numbers alone. And into this minefield of climate alarmism, fate tossed a tortoise, when marine biologist Christine Figgener uploaded an amateur video of a maimed sea turtle in Costa Rica with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. Every crusade needs a martyr. 39 million views later the straw movement had its poster turtle.
Society’s shapeless eco-panic consolidated around a tangible villain: the single-use straw—and concerned citizens around the globe answered the call to arms. First came the nonprofits as snappy, single-issue campaigns started popping up around the web: The Last Plastic Straw, For a Strawless Ocean, Our Last Straw, and Straw Wars. Entourage star Adrian Grenier launched the Lonely Whale nonprofit which led to the “Strawless in Seattle” initiative, and the Surfrider Foundation dubbed 2018 “the year we say goodbye to plastic straws.” Then the TED Talk phase arrived, and a string of precocious child activists were trotted out on the lecture circuit with recycling testimonials that scanned as first drafts of future college application essays. Nine-year-old Molly Steer announced the “Straw No More” initiative on the TEDx stage in Australia, while the brother-sister team Olivia and Carter Ries introduced their nationwide “One Less Straw” campaign as teenagers in 2016.
Then Hollywood joined the cause . . . Where celebrities tweet, brands soon follow . . . On the back of this PR tailwind, the anti-straw zeal glided effortlessly from press release to policy proposal, as governments around the world wrote plastic purges into law. Seattle became the first major American city to bar single-use straws in July 2018. Other progressive strongholds soon passed similar legislation, and California became the first state to ban nonrequested straws in September 2018. India barred single-use straws by 2022, and France went one step further to outlaw plastic cups in 2020. Even Queen Elizabeth insisted that the sinful silicate be purged from the royal estate. The campaign’s sudden, intercontinental success offers a case study in what might be called the iron law of internet activism: viral animal video + quotable scare stat = “great moral cause of our time,” or at least until the next cute cat collides with a scaremonger stat on Twitter.
But what about that original statistic that launched a thousand hashtags? Where did this estimate of 500 million daily straws come from? The answer: a 9-year-old boy in Vermont. And the story of how this number goes from an elementary school to public policy reveals something essential but rather disconcerting about the progressive political imagination in the age of social media, and how misinformation takes root and then spreads in today’s highly politicized media ecosystem.
Alan Jacobs writes about Scott Joplin in Comment: “Scott Joplin was born in 1868 or thereabouts. Probably in Texarkana, probably on the Arkansas side. His father was a railway worker and for a while he was one also, though eventually he was able to begin making a career he preferred as a music teacher. Then he became a performer and a composer of songs in the form that we know as ragtime. When Joplin published ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ in 1899 he became grew relatively wealthy and was recognized as the greatest exponent of ragtime music. However, the popularity of ragtime began to wane and Joplin’s career tailed off. He died of syphilis in 1916, in a New York hospital, and was soon completely forgotten.”
Archaeologists discover 2,000-year-old graves in Paris: “In the heart of Paris, three meters beneath the surface, archaeologists located 50 second-century graves in March – a discovery that will offer further insight into the funeral practices of the Parisii, the Gallic tribe that inhabited Lutetia. In the process, we will also get to know a little bit more about how they lived.”
Lost Gaetano Donizetti songs to be performed for the first time in over 200 years: “Roger Parker, a professor of music at King’s College London, described the scores as ‘incredible’ and worthy of Donizetti’s most popular operas, masterpieces that include Lucia di Lammermoor.”
The mathematics of punctuation: “The language characterized by the lowest propensity to use punctuation is English, with Spanish not far behind; Slavic languages proved to be the most punctuation-dependent. The hazard function curves for punctuation marks in the six languages studied appeared to follow a similar pattern, they differed mainly in vertical shift.”
In praise of irritation: “It surely reflects the fugitive pleasures of irritation that there are so many wonderful, chewy words to describe those who are irritable: prickly, testy, cantankerous, crotchety, disputatious, grumbling, peevish, plaintive, irascible, and ornery. Yet, in a culture that equates depth with significance, we tend to be quick to dismiss our irritation (‘It was nothing’). Perhaps this is why, compared with more culturally prestigious moods such as anger, despair, joy, dread or melancholia, irritation has received little attention.”
Erin Montgomery reviews Paul Bloom’s Psych: “Professor Paul Bloom’s Introduction to Psychology is one of Yale’s most popular courses of all time. In his new book, Psych: The Story of the Human Mind, his eighth, he provides readers a tour of that course and of many of the ideas he’s developed over his career as a research psychologist, with plenty of well-placed anecdotes and quotations from great thinkers and philosophers throughout history to reinforce his teaching points.”