Book Banning in 21st-Century America

by Knox, Emily J.M. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 174 pp. ISBN 978-1-4422-3167-2

Emily Knox has written a book that focuses on book banning in contemporary America. It explores the relationship between knowledge and power. Her work will be of interest to public libraries, school libraries, and those interested in general in book banning in America in the 21st century.

Knox asks good questions such as: Why do people challenge, restrict, or remove books? What are the roles of libraries and schools in censorship? In what ways are challenge cases a struggle for the authority over the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate knowledge in the public sphere? What is the point of banning books in an age of ubiquitous online access? What justifications do challengers give that reveal assumptions about their communities and personal value systems? What is the proper balance between the discourse of censorship and freedom of speech?

One noteworthy aspect of censorship today that Knox addresses is that of diversity. She notes that the list of “most frequently challenged authors of the twenty-first century”[1] from the ALA includes more authors of color after 2010, when the Common Core was first implemented. The discrimination against authors of color is attributed to the rise of conservatism and racial backlash and the implementation of the Common Core in state public schools. Knox notes that eight of the ten books on the ALA’s 2014 challenged books list can be characterized as diverse, as they have main characters that are non-white or non-heterosexual. Of the 3500 books for children published in 2014, very few were by or about people of color, according to the Cooperative Children’s book center (CCBC). Only 179 were by or about African Americans. Yet the books published by diverse authors or featuring diverse characters are more likely to be challenged. Knox insinuates that books are thus challenged not only on basis of content of profanity, explicit illicit sexuality, and violence, but also because their protagonists and authors stem from underrepresented diverse multicultural populations.  

Knox expands on challenge cases in her appendix, which consists of 15 challenge cases that took place over a six year period from 2007 to 2013. Three of the cases were curriculum challenges, nine were both curriculum and school library cases, and the remaining three were public library challenges. Chapter 3 offers an analysis of challengers’ discourse, whereby words of the challengers are shown in block quotations. Each analyzed quotation is followed by a parenthetical citation indicating the quotation’s source and the location and date of the challenge case hearing including the gender and number of the speaker.  These quotations are exemplars of particular themes and illuminate several different concepts throughout the chapter. Outside of providing their gender, care is taken not to give any identifying information on the challenger in the analysis.

What feels lacking in Knox’s book is her overview of the historical context of censorship and literacy. Some may argue that Knox should have expanded her scope. Knox alludes to the state-sponsored governmental model of censorship by the Roman office of the censor. However, Knox does not provide an example of a censor’s workings, such as what is recounted in the book of Maccabees (1:50) by Antiochus IV, or the Talmudic tractate Tan’ait 4:6. From the brief reference of the Roman censor, Knox fast forwards to eighteenth century France where the institution of the monarchy needed to give its imprimatur before the publication of materials. Knox then touches on the model of censorship practiced in Great Britain whereby the state enacted licensing acts for publishers from the seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. More detailed examples of censorship through these periods would have strengthened Knox’s historical overview.[2]

A second blind spot in Knox’s study is apparent in her overview of literacy throughout history. She assumes and generalizes that during the Middle Ages, “few people could read and write” (34). This may apply as a generalization to Christendom, for example, but not to the Jewish communities where Hebrew literacy was a requirement for membership and participation in the synagogue community.[3] This reviewer would like to see a more thorough and accurate investigation into the historical development of literacy to enhance the work’s credibility.

Overall, Knox has done a good job with an immensely complex, high-stakes topic and makes implications for public policy. This reviewer thinks that the work would have benefited from the inclusion of a more expansive and thorough section on the historical context of book censorship and literacy.

 David B Levy, Touro College, New York


[3] As documented in Levy’s study of the History of Jewish education and Jewish libraries in the Middle ages: Botticini & Eckstein (Chosen Few: How Education shaped Jewish History, 70-1492, Princeton Univ. Press: NJ, 2012) also argue that Medieval Jewry was literate.