Sunday, February 8, 2015

When Book-Snark Goes Too Far: Celebrating Book-Banning & Other Terrible Decisions

Photo from Tumblr, apparently taken inside Riverdale High School in Jefferson, Louisiana.
There is uproar in the ALA Think Tank today over a Tumblr post.  Mind you, there is uproar there pretty much every day -- #ALATT basically exists for that purpose, alas -- but it's usually not related to something an anonymous high school student posted on their blog.

A Louisiana student posted a photo of her high school librarian smiling and giving the thumbs-up next to a bright orange sign reading:


Please go to your public library
for poorly written books on
mentally and physically
abusive sexual relationships

Oh, boy.

When I first saw this photo, especially the face of the librarian who is clearly so enchanted by her masterpiece, I had a pretty good flood of emotions.  My mind instantly took me back to being a teenager and translated this sign into the language I would have read then:

Dear Teens, 
The types of books you like to read are stupid and worthless. The only books acceptable are the ones you don't like or don't want to read right now. If 'stupid and worthless' is your thing, either leave this safe space or just quit reading.
Your Library

Because, really, let's be honest:  that's the message there.  This sign isn't standing up for fine literature or taking a bold stance against the negative portrayal of women, sexuality, and consent to which readers are exposed.

The sign is simply shaming anyone who wants to read the book.  And while that's okay to do on Tumblr or in your living room or over the phone with some friend you made on Goodreads, it is never, ever, ever okay for a professional librarian to do in a public school.

Deciding on a collection development basis that it doesn't fit your library is absolutely fine.  I would probably make the same decision as a public high school librarian.  But to celebrate the fact that you've banned a book?  Keep it classy, Riverdale.

What that incredibly self-satisfied librarian should do regarding Fifty Shades of Grey is simply, well...her job.  Here are things she could do:

  • Not even mention the thing, because really, you think those students are rushing the desk every day for that book?
  • "I'm sorry, we don't have that book, but I can suggest some romance novels we do have that you might like..."
  • "I'm sorry, we don't have that book, but let me give you the hours for the public library..."
  • "I'm sorry, we don't have that book, but do you know how to place a hold at the public library on-line?  Here, let me show you.  If you have your card, we can even do it right now!"
  • Basically anything else not snarky and demeaning.

No matter how awful a book or its message is, your job as a librarian is to educate and empower.  You don't say, "Neener, neener, I'm withholding information from you and you can't stop me!" with a bright orange sign.  You don't make patrons feel like garbage because they are intellectually curious about a material.  (Did it not occur to this librarian that some students might be interested in the book precisely because of its negative aspects, because they are looking into media portrayals of domestic violence or because they are an emerging feminist and want to know what the heck people debating the book are talking about?)  You don't make the public library sound like a cesspool of inferior materials that could only benefit from your learned weeding touch.

If the demand really is that high?  Make a multipurpose handout of suggested alternatives, educate about (and respect) the public library, and casually put up a display of books dealing with the topic of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships.  And jump up and down over the fact that a teenager asked for a book in the first place.

Friday, January 9, 2015

On Reading, Writing & Flattening the Barriers

I believe that the thing that connects every writer who is interested in the truth, every writer who is determined to tell truly not just what it is in his own heart, but what he sees in the heart of experience, is that the emotional truth and felt life that he finds in the writing of a good story breaks down the walls between people, obliterates the assumptions and falsities in how we see the other.  Flattens the barriers of culture, and closes the divide between young and old. He knows that if the story is good, it will have this effect. And though he can never know whether or not it will find its way into the general mind, he hopes it is good enough to always have this effect for who ever may come upon it, wherever they may be. In any case, trying to be clear, and to be truthful, he partakes of the great miracle that defines all of us as human. 
-- Richard Bausch, "Why Literature Can Save Us"
2014  was the year of diversity awareness in the reading community.  (By "reading community," I mean those of us who do things as odd as read and write blogs on the subject.)  The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement went from being little more than a Twitter hashtag and Tumblr feed to a slick, full-fledged 501(c)3 that closed out the year by bringing its fundraising total into the hundreds of thousands.  The Diversity on the Shelf challenge was held for the first time, getting readers, reviewers, and bloggers to commit to reading a minimum number of books by and/or about people of color.  Panels were heldstudy after study highlighted the reprehensible lack of representation of diversity within publishing houses, and too many thinkpieces to count were issued on the subject.  Basically, no discussion in the book world has been free of "diversity" this year, at least in the sense that the word was present.

Like most good liberal-minded people, I have publicly supported these efforts.  In college, I was the student who went straight to the reading list in the syllabus to make sure that at least one woman, one person of color, and one non-American (preferably non-Western) were to be handled during the semester.  Several years ago, I discovered a radical coloring book at the sorely-missed Food for Thought co-op bookstore in Amherst, Massachusetts, featuring everything from interracial families and same-gender parents to children using wheelchairs and undocumented farmworkers.  I had never given much thought to the power even the simplest books have in challenging assumptions and privileges, but finding that book was a pretty profound experience for me.  I always regret not buying it.

I digress.  My point is, I have evangelized for diversity in books for what feels like a long time, but this past year I felt more and more like a hypocrite.  That's because, in looking at my actual book piles and reading lists, I had to acknowledge that my behaviors are not reflecting my values.  Not only have I not been making a point to seek out diversity in my book selections, I haven't even accidentally been including many.  More embarrassingly, I have not gotten away from the dreaded historian curse of reading about people of color primarily in the context of them being oppressed, exploited, and exterminated.

Aside from the fact that I'm not exposing myself to the majority of human experience and am remaining stuck in my world of privilege, this intellectual isolationism also means that I'm denying myself the chance to write about and discuss those other works.  Those of us who write reviews, post on book discussion forums, join virtual reading groups, and run blogs like this pen millions of words every year about what we've been reading.  But do we ever stop to think about how homogeneous our reading is?  What new insight is our writing bringing to the table?  Can we use our time and talents in a way that is more meaningful?  Basically, what if book blogs talked less about the newest romance novels and more about using writing and literature to better understand things that matter?

In 2015, I want to be better.  I want my actions to reflect my values.  I am absolutely going to enjoy all kinds of reading this year, but if you see me slipping away from keeping things changed up, hold me accountable.  Flatten my barriers.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Celebrate Chanukah with the PJ Library

Happy Chanukah, readers!  Starting tonight after sundown, you will hopefully be receiving a new book eight days in a row.  :)

I wanted to take a quick moment to promote a program that I really like and which you might like to share with others.  The PJ Library is an American nationwide initiative that provides every Jewish child who registers with a FREE monthly box of Jewish-themed books, CDs, and more.  It's a way to teach children about their culture, heritage, and faith community while instilling a love of reading and learning.  And again, it's 100% free.

If you'd like to register your child(ren), donate to the program, or simply learn more, please visit their website at

Please enjoy your holiday!  And don't forget that if you access Amazon via this blog's banner(s) before making a purchase, you help to keep it/me going.

If you'd like to spread the word about the PJ Library, please link to this post.