NEW YORK AND WASHINGTON — John Steinbeck and J.K. Rowling have something in common. Both award-winning authors have faced expulsion from school and public libraries. Steinbeck's novel "Of Mice and Men" was the second most "challenged" book of 2001, right after Rowling's Harry Potter series.
Focusing attention on attempts to restrict access to books is what Banned Books Week (Sept. 21-28) is about. Since 1982, the observance has served to remind us that challenges to the freedom to read require vigilant efforts to ensure that this freedom lives on. Special events at thousands of libraries and bookstores across the country are celebrating the freedom to read such books as "The Red Pony," "Catcher in the Rye," and the Bible all of which have been challenged or banned somewhere. While every book may not be intended for every reader, each of us has the right to make that choice.
Thousands of library books many of them classics are challenged each year. Since 1990, more than 6,500 formal complaints requesting a book be removed from library shelves or school curriculums have been documented. Would-be book banners are a diverse lot with differing ideologies. But what unites them is an unshakable conviction that they know what's best for their own children and everyone else's. Thanks to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students, and concerned citizens, book challenges often are unsuccessful.
As the citizens of a strong democracy, we need powerfully expressed ideas and unpopular viewpoints to help our nation thrive. Banning books whose words and vision challenge us, enrich our lives, and nourish our aspirations and hopes for the future is a step in the wrong direction.
Maurice J. Freedman is president of the American Library Association. Former Rep. Patricia S. Schroeder is president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers.