Looking for Alaska. To Kill a Mockingbird. Antiracist Baby. What do these three books have in common? They’ve all been banned, for a myriad of reasons, in various places in the United States.
Autumn is in the air, and with it comes the American Library Association’s National Banned Books Week, dragging along with it the raging controversy of censorship and book banning with the slogan “Let Freedom Read.” Publishing companies are tripping over themselves to prove that they “stand with the banned,” with literary giants such as Penguin Random House and Harper Collins adding pages to their websites confirming their efforts to fight censorship.
At the same time, libraries and schools all over Virginia are being inundated with complaints from parents about the content available to their children. The school boards of Spotsylvania County and Madison County have each removed over a dozen books from their school libraries in the past year, particularly those that are sexually explicit and/or support the progressive gender ideology of modern America. Furthermore, the Clean Up Samuels organization of Front Royal, Virginia has made national headlines by actively boycotting the local Samuels Public Library in response to the presence of children’s and young adult novels that explore LGBTQ+ themes and/or are sexual in nature, causing 75% of the library’s funding to be cut until the issue is resolved.
Both sides of the issue – pro- and anti-book banning – paint themselves as dignified moral elites. The “stand with the banned” crowd is a champion of self-expression and intellectual progress, nobly fighting to uphold the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and the press. The groups that call for the removal of content are heroic defenders of children’s innocence by making themselves the arbiters of what is and is not age-appropriate.
Penguin Random House nobly rises above such petty limitations on the content available to children, which it claims is a direct violation of free speech. Five of its Instagram posts in the last three weeks boast the hashtag “I stand with the banned.” The banned books page on its website is similarly aggressively virtuous, with LET KIDS READ emblazoned in giant block letters. Let kids read. Let them learn, you bigots. Don’t you care about the intellectual growth of the young? If you don’t like it, then don’t read it!
Despite its virtue signaling, Penguin Random House doesn’t have the moral high ground. In February of 2023, the company was featured in multiple prominent news sources such as USA Today and CNN after its children’s division, Puffin Books, announced that it would be printing edited versions of beloved classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, removing words such as “fat,” “crazy,” and “ugly” from the narration, as well as any time the word “black” was used to represent a negative concept. Guess whose books aren’t listed on Penguin Random House’s website page of banned and challenged books to read? Roald Dahl’s.
Puffin’s attempt to update the content of the works was met with scathing accusations of censorship, most notably from Salman Rushdie, one of the most controversial authors of our time, who called it “absurd censorship.” The outcry caused the company to backtrack and announce that it would continue to print “classic,” unedited editions of Dahl’s books along with the newly “updated” ones.
On the copyright page of the controversial new editions of Dahl’s classics, Puffin Books writes that the books, although outdated, have been “improved” to ensure that the language “can continue to be enjoyed by all today.” The implication here is a dangerous one. Every book is a product of its time. Most books are “outdated” in some way, whether in language, science, social understanding, or any of the other hundreds of aspects of human thought. If we expect every book to conform to the world of 2023, are we, therefore, required to review its relevance again in twenty-five years, or fifty? Most would agree that it would be a heinous crime to edit the language of Shakespeare’s canon, despite potentially racist sentiments throughout many of his works, because his effect on Western society is astronomical and invaluable. Why would we change such an important aspect of culture? If we force literature – or any intellectual property – to conform to the current mindset, we lose an important part of the past. It is a step backward in free speech rather than forward.
The primary argument in favor of editing books with discriminatory or uncomfortable language is that such content is dangerous for the reader to consume. Why, then, are Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto still in print and readily available to anyone, when both certainly had a far more negative effect on society than Dahl writing about “Cloud-Men” rather than “Cloud-People” (Puffin’s subtle correction) in James and the Giant Peach?
Under the First Amendment, all authors have a right to write anything. They may not be given a public platform to share their viewpoints, per the discretion of a publishing company – certainly, there are many who do not deserve such a platform – but they are still permitted to say it. Books that have been available to and loved by the public for half a century do not need to be censored. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.
To put it bluntly, Penguin Random House is blatantly exploiting the ideal of free speech. The hypocrisy is glaringly evident; the publishing company wrote that it seeks to publish “diverse stories and rich, wide-spanning perspectives” – with the unspoken caveat that these perspectives must be in alignment with its own opinions. Instead of encouraging free discourse and diverse viewpoints to thrive, Penguin Random House has flipped “free speech” upside down by narrowing the variety of perspectives that readers can access. Companies with such a massive influence over what people read ought not to pretend that they want free speech when what they truly want is to be comfortable. The written word is a powerful tool for the advancement of new ideas, philosophies, and stories. Let’s not abuse it.
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.