Yes, book burnings sometimes happen in America. Far more often, there are efforts to ban books from school and public libraries by various groups trying to suppress access to ideas of which they do not approve -- from Harry Potter to Huckleberry Finn.
Many of those responsible for efforts to ban books from schools and libraries are groups and individuals affiliated with the religious right, particularly in recent years as the American Family Association, among others, have whipped up-fears about Harry Potter books and films.
Fortunately, for more than 25 years, the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression, among others, have sponsored Banned Books Week to highlight the importance of the Freedom to Read. This year, Banned Books Week runs from September 29-Oct 6th.
The ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom and others collect and publish examples from around the country in the run up to Banned Books Week. The numbers usually run in the hundreds of documented episodes. The 2007 materials have not yet been published, but now is a good time to begin to be thinking about how we can celebrate Banned Books Week.
The ALA describes BBW this way:
Banned Books Week - Celebrating the Freedom to Read is observed during the last week of September each year. Observed since 1982, the annual event reminds Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted.
Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Library Association (ALA), the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Association of College Stores. The Library of Congress Center for the Book endorses it.
Many bookstores and libraries across the nation join in the celebration with displays and readings of books that have been banned or threatened throughout history. These include works ranging from the Bible to John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men."
Each year, the American Library Association's (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom receives hundreds of reports on books and other materials that were "challenged" (their removal from school or library shelves was requested). The ALA estimates the number represents only about a quarter of the actual challenges. "Most Challenged" titles include the popular "Harry Potter" series of fantasy books for children by J.K. Rowling. The series drew complaints from parents and others who believe the books promote witchcraft to children.
The challenges reported reflect a continuing concern with a wide variety of themes. Other "Most Challenged" titles include "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain, for its use of language, particularly references to race; "It's Perfectly Normal," a sex education book by Robie Harris, for being too explicit, especially for children; and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou, for the description of rape she suffered as a child.
The ALA has a list of ways to get involved and suggested activities. As does the American Booksellers Foundation which also has an online handbook for Banned Books Week.
The ABFFE has downloadable PDF files of cool Banned Books Week posters that can be printed at copy shops.
But just in case anyone thinks I am exaggerating or that book burnings can't happen here,, the ALA has some examples of book burnings that took place right here in the U.S. in recent years -- including a photo of members of an Assemblies of God church in Penn Township, Pennsylvania, burning books and music. The church called it a "Demon Roast."
The ALA's run down of the history of book burning opens with a quote from a play by German playright, Heinrich Heine in 1821:
"Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings."
The ALA believes that there are many more episodes of burning and banning every year that they just don't hear about.
In 2002 in New Mexico, a local church organized a book burning of Harry Potter and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, among others:
A display of Harry Potter books at the Alamogordo (N. Mex.) Public Library was a marked contrast to a December 30 book burning of works written by J. K. Rowling and others that took place outside the city’s Christ Community Church. Held on church property after a half-hour prayer service, the event drew several hundred congregants and as many as 800 counterprotesters.
After Pastor Jack Brock sermonized about fire as a cleansing instrument, some worshippers placed into the bonfire personal copies of the Potter series as well as such items as J. R. R. Tolkien novels, issues of Cosmopolitan and Young Miss magazines, AC/DC recordings, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and ouija boards. Brock, who organized the demonstration, characterized the Potter series as "a masterpiece of satanic deception."
People also reacted with "generous cash donations" to the city library, Director Jim Preston told American Libraries. "With this money we are purchasing additional copies of Harry Potter, Tolkien, and Shakespeare."
So it is important to underscore that book bannings, and even occasional book burnings, do happen here in America. There are movements that whip people up into a frenzy about alleged threats from mere books that many of us would not think possible. (Over at Talk to Action, we discuss some of those movements.) Libraries and independent bookstores across the country stage Banned Books Week every year. They deserve our support.