Required Reading: Banned Books and Black Ink

Are You There God?In the country where I grew up, textbooks came with thick black lines drawn over certain sentences and certain maps. Ladies' magazines, like Cosmo and Vogue, featured models with long black sleeves, long black skirts, and buttoned-up busts, all overlaid by the same inky hand. 

My friends and I imagined a friendly local censor—like a postman—sorting and sanitizing the mail with a disappointed look ("The Victoria Secret catalogue at Salwa #5, again!"). Or, sometimes we thought there must be hundreds of censors, rows and rows of black markers carefully defacing the nation's mail, lengthening shorts into long skirts, giving in to sartorial fancy with a few creative black wiggles, or cutting history shorter by a few years here and there.

Censorship made my first read of Judy Blume's Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? very confusing. Playboy. Period. Jewish. Breast. Menstruation. Kiss. Not only were words missing, but every premise of the classic American adolescent crisis (and then some) had been blacked out. 

Americans aren't so intimate with censorship. We expect to receive our Victoria's Secret Catalogues in full detail. But even here, books still do get banned, limited, or "challenged"; in fact, Judy Blume made it to the the top of the American Library Association's "Most Frequently Challenged Authors" list in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010. A "challenged author" is an author whose works American lending libraries have been asked to remove or restrict. In the '90s, Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? was one of 100 most challenged books in America.

So in the 1990s, I could have visited libraries in two different countries, thousands of miles apart, radically differentiated by dominant religions, cultures, and standards of censorship, and still struggled to find a full copy of anything by Judy Blume, peddler of smut like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Incredible. Yet I'm still not sure censorship is all bad—at least, the will to censor makes a lot of sense. Have you ever wanted to take a black marker to a "sexy" ad or magazine cover?

This post builds on thoughts developed in the comments of my previous post (Required Reading: Disgrace). My next post will continue along these lines, so please add your input about censorship, pornogrphy, visual culture and literature in the comments.

Previously: Disgrace, Aya de Yopougon

by Caitlin Hu
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8 Comments Have Been Posted


I take a little bit of issue with this: "A "challenged author" is an author whose works <strong>American lending libraries</strong> have tried to remove or restrict."

I've never heard of a library or librarian try to remove or restrict anything. Any time I've heard of a book being challenged, it's because a third party--like a parent or group of parents--appealed to the library to remove it. In fact, the same article linked there says that "Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection."

Not saying it has never happened, because I don't really know... but a library itself banning a book is pretty unheard of, because it's contrary to what libraries are about.

re: Libraries?

As a teen librarian, I'll say that it's much more common for a third party to request that an item be removed from a library (school, public, etc.), but there are instances of librarians or library staff removing material they find offensive. I've heard of this being done a couple of ways - not purchasing it, purchasing it and then not adding it to the collection once it's received, checking it out repeatedly so it's unavailable to the public, or keeping it behind the desk so patrons have to ask for it. In library school, you're taught about the issue of self-censorship, or not purchasing materials that you personally find offensive, and how to recognize when you're doing it and avoiding it. Speaking from my own experience, I run into this when I'm ordering materials that pertain to sex education. My community can be conservative and I get requests for books that are abstinence only or talk about the moral dangers of masturbation... I have to make a decision about purchasing something that fills the needs of my library's community, is factual, and represents multiple sides of an issue. So even though I cringe at the books that are abstinence only, I make sure to balance them out with books for teens that have more open attitudes towards sex education.

So yes, it's not unheard of for librarians to do some censorship without the provocation of a third party. In fact, the American Library Association mentions that when counting banned and censored books stats, the majority of censorship issues go unreported. But I think most librarians are striving for intellectual freedom and not actively seeking to remove materials from their collection.

This librarian was going to

This librarian was going to say the same thing; challenged books are ones that libraries have been ASKED to remove. It doesn't mean that the library wound up actually removing the book after the reconsideration process, and it certainly doesn't mean that the library was in favor of removing it. Most libraries have a process that books go through when a member of the public files a complaint in which a a librarian or a committee of librarians review the book to make sure it fits the collection development policy, and if the policy is decently written and the book wasn't bought by mistake in the first place, it will most likely fit the policy. What's somewhat more likely than removal is that it might be determined the book is for slightly too mature an audience for the children's room and put in Young Adult, or moved to a parent/teacher collection if it's something more useful as a tool for discussing serious topics than just being read as a story book. But in any case, it's definitely not the libraries trying to remove them. The only instance in my time at my library of an item being actually removed was a DVD, because they accidentally bought the unrated version instead of the theatrical release and discovered after the complaint that the version we had was more graphic than what they usually purchase.

Shaughnessy, your comment

Shaughnessy, your comment does seem to characterize the majority of cases - see the change above. Thanks!

Sad but true

I hate to disagree because ideally libraries would not support censorship in any form, but as a librarian I have found that many libraries do self-censor, under the cover of "Well, that book is just not a good fit for our community," or "I know we'll get complaints, so why bother to buy it?" This happens all the time, but it rarely makes the news like parents or community groups campaigning to get a book removed.
Library ethics state that we are against censorship and must serve the needs of all the members of our communities, but librarians are human just like everyone else, and you'll find a broad variety of views on the spectrum out there.


I'm studying this topic for my dissertation. Looking forward to reading your posts.


I'm really fascinated by your questioning of where the oppressive/subversive line exists (no pun intended) regarding "the black marker." I grew up in a liberal area of the US, and so this is a very foreign idea to me. For me, I guess one of the defining characteristics of the action, and whether I would feel more or less oppressed by it, is who the wielder of the marker is, and who created the material that's getting covered. Is the marker being used to protect or to erase? And doesn't the very act of covering a word, passage or image only serve to create more curiosity, and thus more dialogue about the subject matter?

At the same time, though, I'd rather see a black marker put to use writing witty, thought-provoking captions for sexist or potentially sexist images, rather than simply covering them up.

Asian Feminist Art Show in Dublin, Ireland

Looking forward to reading the next few posts.

There is a great image in row upon row of marker-wielding censors...I wonder how
they actually blacked out parts of the images? As an illustrator this kind of pass-the-parcel
image-making is fascinating!

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