Is it EVER okay to ban books?

Today I found myself defending a How-To guide for pedophiles. Yep. Didn’t see that one coming. But I got into some good discussions on twitter and thought I might try to lay out my thoughts in a blog post.

Here is the book.

Yes, this book is reprehensible. Yes, I would prefer that it didn’t exist. But it does exist. So now what do we do?

Today I watched the call to arms go out through twitter. Call Amazon! Make them pull the book from their “shelves!” My first instinct was to do the same. And then I found myself pausing.

The same people reacting this way are the people who celebrate Banned Books Week every year and generally despise censorship. They praise the First Amendment.

And then something happens that makes them question this stance. Because this is a Bad Book. No question about it.

I started out the day just playing devil’s advocate. But then I realized that I really I do think that it is hypocritical to be anti-censorship and then ask bookstores to pull this book from their shelves.

First of all, I don’t think this is child pornography. At least not anymore than Lolita or any other book that features an adult/child sexual relationship. You can argue that a How-To guide is different, sure. But where do we draw the line? And I could argue that it incites people to commit crimes and therefore is not free speech protected by the First Amendment but that’s not really the issue.

And I don’t have a problem with Amazon making a choice not to sell this book or people choosing not to shop at Amazon because of their choice to sell it.

I just think that if we really are against banning books, we have to be against banning any book. Period.

Please comment (respectfully) and let me know your thoughts whether you agree with me or not.

[Update: As of 11/11/10, Amazon has pulled the book from its site.]

18 thoughts on “Is it EVER okay to ban books?

  1. Kirsten November 10, 2010 / 6:10 pm

    I’ve stayed out of this whole thing mainly because it seems self-righteous and yes, hypocritical, for many of the people I see “celebrating” Banned Books Week to be up in arms about this. I don’t give a rat’s pitooty about the content; it’s a book. There are true crime books that detail gory murders and how the killer got away with them, documentaries about serial rapists and their methods, the list goes on and on. If one chooses to protect the rights of authors to write, and people to read, books, it should be across the board. Thanks for posting this; it was a brave thing to do.


  2. Kelly November 10, 2010 / 6:24 pm

    You’re right. You’re totally right. Agggghhhhhh. *facepalm*


  3. Dawn November 10, 2010 / 7:12 pm

    I think you are brave to broach this issue. It’s not an easy one, especially with so many of us book lovers being outraged when gay/lesbian titles, for instance, are challenged and removed from libraries.

    However, you are missing the fact that Amazon just isn’t the seller of this book, they are the PUBLISHER. The usual submission and editorial process has been skipped. Was there even a vetting process? It’s unclear by Amazon’s response.

    The outrage is over Amazon’s publication of the material. If they choose to publish it and people wish not to purchase from them, it is a person’s choice. It is a different situation than being a library or a bookseller: they enabled the content and thus should be responsible for it.


    • Kirsten November 10, 2010 / 7:22 pm

      Dawn, I do see where you’re coming from. However, as you chose gay/lesbian titles as a comparison, should we also presume that every publishing house that puts out a GLBTQI title is *supportive* of queer rights? Or only that they’re tolerant because it may generate revenue? As a queer reader, I often go out of my way to purchase queer titles directly from the pub or at least at retail price through an independent bookstore; that’s how I can show my support. But there’s a difference between a publisher who advocates for their titles’ content and one who simply puts it out there.


    • Michelle November 10, 2010 / 8:25 pm

      I was missing that fact, Dawn. I’m trying to decide how that affects my analysis. I’ll get back to you on that one.


  4. Dawn November 10, 2010 / 7:50 pm

    Kirsten, being a former editor, and an author, I can say with certainty that a publisher publishes a book because they believe in the content they are selling. An editor who isn’t tolerant of gay/lesbian themes is not going to buy a gay/lesbian book, regardless if they think it will make money. Editors are passionate about what they are producing. The publishing business is too tough to waste time on books you don’t believe in. The books on a publisher’s list reflect its belief system. They are in business to make money, yes, but that doesn’t mean they will publish anything.

    Amazon has published this book without the usual checks and balances of a traditionally-published book. First, Amazon has to make it clear if they approved this book or if the author simply pressed a button. They have responded as a seller rather than a publisher. And since they’re new at this, maybe they can be excused for responding wearing the wrong hat.

    So can we even call it a book at the moment? It doesn’t fit into the usual definition, but as we all know, the times, they are a’changin’. Where do we draw the line? Should Amazon allow *every* manuscript that’s submitted to be published?


    • Jen - Devourer of Books November 11, 2010 / 10:29 am

      Reading Amazon’s guidelines, I’d have to say I’m pretty sure that the ‘offensive’ is probably just CYA sort of thing, actually, all of them probably are. I doubt they have anyone really looking deeply at what they allow to be published. And offensive is the only one of those categories it could possibly be listed under, since it is not technically p*rn or illegal.


  5. Jenny November 10, 2010 / 8:21 pm

    Is this an actual how to book?
    I have to say I don’t agree at all.
    I really don’t have much to say to back up my opinion but the fact that anyone agreed to publish this in the first place is disgusting. Sexual abuse is a big big crime that is minimized ALL THE TIME. I don’t think books that promote this are okay. Fiction books are different and some are borderline… but to me this is absolutely something that should be banned. Child pornography which is the video version of this (and yes they have how to videos as well) are illegal so I don’t think it’s that far off to say this should be illegal too.


    • Michelle November 10, 2010 / 8:27 pm

      I can certainly appreciate your view, Jenny. I just think that we need a bright line rule. Otherwise I’m not sure how anyone knows which books are ok to ban and which aren’t. I obviously agree about the disgusting part.


  6. Dawn November 10, 2010 / 8:36 pm

    Michelle, let’s remove the term “book” because this document barely falls under the definition. It was self-published using Amazon’s digital content platform, unedited, unsupervised. If a traditional publisher received this manuscript, I think it’s reasonable to say it would never have been published. And, the author’s name may have even been turned into the authorities.

    So where you’re getting caught up is in the “book” part. Without Amazon’s digital content platform, this document wouldn’t have been published, so we wouldn’t even be having the book banning discussion.


  7. Florinda November 10, 2010 / 9:10 pm

    I struggled with this one, but ultimately I agree with you – it’s hypocritical to call out censorship on one hand, and call for a book to be pulled from the public on the other. And it may be a self-published e-book, but it’s still a book, in my interpretation. However, this is the flip side of the “anyone can be a published author” world we’re living in – some pretty unsavory stuff will see the light of day, unfortunately.

    I doubt this would be in Amazon’s store at all if it hadn’t been self-published using their digital-content platform (technically, Amazon didn’t publish it), and then we wouldn’t be having this discussion (which would be fine, BTW). The book does seem to conflict with their content guidelines, which seems to indicate that they need to do a better job of policing/enforcing those on the front end.

    I can only hope there’s not much of a market for this thing.


  8. Dawn November 10, 2010 / 9:29 pm

    Florinda, again, I think we all agree here but definitions are clouding the issue. If you want to call it a book, then you have to call Amazon the publisher since their platform produced it. Even self-publishing houses have an approval system. Amazon clearly states they have digital content guidelines, but they don’t seem to have been adhered to in this case.

    If Amazon’s digital content platform were not available to this author, this would not be a book, it would be a bunch of awful blather posted on a website somewhere, with hardly anyone knowing about it, or with authorities (and possibly Dateline NBC) tracking it.


  9. ashley November 11, 2010 / 12:56 am

    hmm.. so did amazon remove since this was posted? the link doesn’t work.


  10. Lu November 11, 2010 / 8:40 am

    Yes, it seems to have disappeared. I think this book would have to be read before we could say it is child pornography or anything illegal, but I wouldn’t remove it from the shelves if it wasn’t actually doing anything illegal. Plus, we don’t know what it’s about at all. How can we say it needs to be removed, which it appears Amazon has done, if we know nothing about it? Clearly the title is in bad taste, but that is the sum of what we know.


  11. Jen - Devourer of Books November 11, 2010 / 10:38 am

    I totally agree with you, Michelle. I hate that that book is out there, but I hate more the demands people were making on Amazon to remove it. The only argument that comes anywhere close to convincing me is the one about a how-to guide for something illegal being a no-no, but it clearly isn’t, based on the “Anarchist Cookbook” and all of the pot-growing books out there. I believe Amazon is also currently taking pre-orders for hardcover on smuggling cocaine (in more of a how-to format). Politicians could certainly attempt to make it illegal to publish a book that is a guide to an illegal act, it seems that would be unconstitutional. Yes, sometimes it is difficult to live in a free society, but we need to suck it up.


  12. Kristie November 11, 2010 / 6:42 pm

    I agree with you completely, Michelle. Even if there are books out there that, while they might not be good books, should still be respected as books. I don’t think it is okay to say some books should be forbidden while others shouldn’t.

    PS- It’s good you put that little note. I tried clicking the link a few times, and it didn’t go anywhere. But when I saw the note, I understood.


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