This past winter break, Samuel Tang ’25 learned that a parent had complained about a book in the curriculum at his former high school, and that the school district was considering removing the book. The issue resonated with Tang for multiple reasons. First, in 10th-grade English, he had read the book, The Good Women of China, and found it an important account of women who faced abuse and other struggles. Second, Tang had long been interested in book bans, after the teacher in that same 10th-grade class helped him overcome an aversion to reading due to slow language development and a speech impediment. The teacher taught Tang the value of interrogating books, rather than just focusing on literary devices.
As the debate played out in his hometown, Tang collaborated with Vassar Department of Education interns to host a forum on banning books in schools. “I’ve always believed that banning books is a sign of censorship and that people should have the right to know information,” says Tang, a psychology major with an education correlate. “If you ban a book, you’re just hiding the realities of what’s happening in the world.”
The February event was the latest effort by Vassar community members to address the topic, which has been in the news largely due to Florida laws that went into effect last July. The laws, which bar classroom instruction on certain subjects and authorize parents to challenge material being taught, have resulted in the removal of many books from schools in that state.
The American Library Association counted nearly 1,600 book-banning attempts in 2021, the highest number since the organization started monitoring them more than 20 years earlier, and 2022 was on track for even more, according to its most recent data. Book bans go back to at least 213 BC, when Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang is said to have burned books so history would be thought to have started with him.
In the current landscape, book challengers often argue that material is unsuitable due to content addressing issues such as sexuality. There are also attempts, perhaps from the opposite side of the political spectrum, to toss older material due to what challengers argue is an outdated treatment of race and other subjects. Sometimes publishers or authors’ companies take it upon themselves to address potential concerns, such as the 2021 ceasing of publication of six Dr. Seuss titles, and the recent decision by Roald Dahl’s British publisher to update the language in his children’s books. (In February, Dahl’s publisher said that after “debate” over the changes, it would make both the old and new versions available.)
“Book bans has become one of those key flash points,” says Karin Karlekar ’94, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America, a nonprofit. Protecting free expression is crucial because other rights depend on it, Karlekar says. “It is what I consider one of the really key foundational rights that enables other people to realize many other rights,” she says. “You can’t take these rights for granted, and they require constant vigilance and defending and protecting.”
At Vassar, the campus libraries had, for years, participated in the American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week,” in which libraries create programming and displays to highlight censorship. Research Librarian Gretchen Lieb, who organized those events, sees the Vassar library as a place where students can confront difficult ideas. “We wanted to show that books are full of triggers and challenging material, and that you didn’t need to be afraid of books for that reason,” she says. “I was trying to make a case for college being a place where you get to learn to deal with that material, not avoid it.” Making banned books available is so important to Lieb that whenever she learns a book is being challenged somewhere, she checks to see if Vassar has it and acquires it if it’s not in the system.
Free expression is crucial because other rights depend on it, says PEN America’s Karin Karlekar ’94. “You can’t take these rights for granted, and they require constant vigilance and defending and protecting.”
Elsewhere on campus, the Department of Education is readying students to encounter such dilemmas during their future teaching careers. “We’re always preparing our [students] to do the right thing as teachers,” says Professor of Education and Coordinator of Secondary Teacher Education Maria Hantzopoulos. “In light of a book ban, are we saying, ‘Just teach it anyway?’ No, we’re trying to help them negotiate the context that they’re in so they can teach truthfully.”
Nathaniel Sandler ’04 is one alum working to make books available. In 2012, he founded the Miami-based Bookleggers Library, which has a goal of “saving material from destruction,” he says. The nonprofit accepts book donations and hosts events to give them away. Sandler sees the organization as able to connect people to books regardless of the content. “We don’t make those censorship decisions here,” he says. “Just by existing, we’re standing in contrast to the decisions being made by the state of Florida.” (Read more about Sandler and the library on page 26.)
After then-President Donald Trump tried to block publication of Michael Wolff ’75’s Fire and Fury, sales went through the roof.
And in New York, an effort at Brooklyn Public Library is underway, with the help of Sam Biederman ’05. As Senior Vice President at communications firm BerlinRosen, Biederman has been spreading the word about the library’s Books Unbanned initiative, which provides free access to its entire eBook collection to people ages 13 to 21.
Brooklyn Public Library wanted to go beyond the typical recognition of the issue, Biederman says. “They felt when they saw this wave of censorship moving across the country, they had to do more than just offer a few programs,” he says. Through Books Unbanned, the library has given out more than 6,000 cards and had at least 52,000 check-outs. “The public library movement is about free thought, and free thought cannot stop at the border of a borough or the border of a state,” Biederman says.
“In light of a book ban, we’re trying to help teachers negotiate the context that they’re in so they can teach truthfully.”
PROF. MARIA HANTZOPOULOS
Sometimes attempting to ban a book actually benefits the author. “It means that the book sells vastly more copies,” says Michael Wolff ’75, whose 2018 book Fire and Fury survived an attempt by its subject, then-President Donald Trump, to block publication. Within days, it sold a million copies. “In the first blush of this, it was slightly frightening,” Wolff recalls. “But in the second blush, it was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I could never in my wildest dreams have hoped for something this great to happen to my book.”
Max Kutner ’11 has written for Newsweek, the Boston Globe, and Smithsonian.