This week is Banned Books Week across libraries in the United States and all around the world. Banned Books Week is a fun but somewhat hypocritical tradition where libraries uphold themselves as defenders of intellectual freedom while ignoring parts of our own history that show that while libraries like to talk the talk, they haven’t always walked the walk. Which is to say, I have some mixed feelings around the whole thing but there are usually some programs and activities that take place around this time that I’ve enjoyed in the past.
One of those activities is what’s known as a Banned Books Read-Out. This is where you take a book that’s known to have been banned somewhere for one reason or another, you talk about why it’s been banned, and then you read a passage from that book in front of an audience. I’ve participated in several of these at various times in my career and while picking my own reading has always been fun, I’ve actually discovered some great stuff after hearing about other people’s picks (most notably Philip Larkin’s poetry).
One year, though, while I was at my former institution, this activity got a little personal for me. That was my first year on my campus’s Big Read Committee, which was a committee made up of faculty, staff, and students that reviews and selects whatever the Big Read will be for incoming freshman the next year. This was kind of a big deal at the time because a lot of first year composition and freshman seminar-type classes were planned around the Big Read and the various activities associated with it.
My first year on the committee, we reviewed what must have been dozens of books before settling on our choice: Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo. In this book, Thompson-Cannino talks about being sexually assaulted at knifepoint in her own apartment while in college. Afterward, she identified Cotton as her rapist only for him to be exonerated by DNA evidence after spending eleven years in prison (during which time he was able to identify the true perpetrator of the crime). The two wrote the book together (with Torneo) in order to examine what had happened and why. The subject matter alone made it seem like a good Big Read choice but what made it even better was that Thompson-Cannino and Cotton often spoke together on college campuses for a relatively reasonable fee, so there was a chance we’d be able to arrange for a visit from the authors as one of our Big Read programs.
The committee submitted our choice to the Provost.
The Provost immediately vetoed our decision and chose Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie, the TOMS shoes guy, instead.
Now, the committee had reviewed Start Something That Matters and thought it was basically okay. The reason we hadn’t chosen it, if I remember correctly, was we thought it didn’t have wide enough appeal. Basically, only the business majors would really get anything out of it. Also it wasn’t well-written and was a bit…insipid. It was a nice book but it just didn’t seem important the way Picking Cotton did. Besides that, Mycoskie (somewhat ironically) was known to charge an arm and a leg for campus appearances—there was no way we were going to be able to afford him.(1)
But the biggest reason the Provost had decided to override the committee’s decision was that Picking Cotton, in describing the assault Thompson-Cannino suffered, goes into some detail about that experience. The main worry was that parents would find out about the scene and object to the book and that this would make the university look bad. The other concern was that the scene would be triggering for some students.
The committee tried to offer possible solutions, including putting a trigger warning on the book so that students could skip the chapter in question. The Provost refused. Several committee members, including its longtime leader, resigned in protest.
At the time, the decision made me angry. The committee had put a lot of care and work into our choice and even though Picking Cotton hadn’t been my favorite of the books we’d reviewed, it seemed like it had the potential to generate worthwhile discussion on some important and immediately relevant issues. By contrast, Start Something That Matters was basically just a marketing tool for TOMS shoes. It pretended to have something to say but was the content was so forgettable that you could be forgiven for never actually figuring what exactly that was.
So what does all this have to do with banned books and read-outs?
Well, by the time Banned Books Week rolled around, a few months after the Big Read controversy, our library held a Banned Books Read-Out. For the program, I chose to read a chapter from Picking Cotton and explained that though this book wasn’t technically banned, I was doing so in protest of the Provost’s choice for that year’s Big Read.
In case you’re worried, I didn’t read THAT chapter. Instead, I read a chapter from later in the book in which the authors describe why they had chosen to write it and, most importantly, why they had chosen to write it together.
I was filled with self-righteous indignation the whole time.
Looking back, I’m a little embarrassed.
I mean, I don’t regret my choice to read from Picking Cotton. And I’m still bitter about Start Something That Matters, mostly because it’s such a bad book.
But while I still think the Provost’s decision had more to do with preserving the university’s reputation than anything else, the fact is that the rape scene in Picking Cotton is potentially very triggering. And while we could have placed a trigger warning on the book or made it clear that students weren’t required to read it, the biggest draw of the Big Read was the programming that we were able to plan around it, including an essay contest with a cash prize. Students who might have needed to stay away from part or all the book wouldn’t have had the same chance to participate in those programs as their classmates. That wouldn’t have been fair.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we should coddle students or that they should never have to step outside of their comfort zone when it comes to the ideas and texts they encounter in the college environment. But I can see now that the Big Read, which is meant to welcome students to the college experience and give them a sense of shared community, isn’t the right time or place for that kind of challenging material. Picking Cotton would be great for a course in criminal justice or women’s studies, but probably not for a Big Read-type program. And there probably would have been ways to bring Thompson-Cannino and Cotton to campus without making their book the Big Read, if we’d wanted to.
Also. As much as I personally revile Start Something That Matters, I can’t deny that it’s a book whose tone and subject matter is much more likely to appeal to college students. If nothing else, it presented an opportunity for an information literacy case study when it comes to how the book functions not only as a memoir about making a difference but also a marketing tool for a shoe company.(2)
So that wasn’t the only read-out I’ve ever participated in but it’s probably the only one where I felt like I was actually being a little bit political, albeit in a relatively low-risk way given how low attendance was for the program. I’m not sorry I did it but even though I still think Picking Cotton is a book that tells an important and interesting story, I’m not sure I’d make the same choice today.
- Even worse, this was a year where there was a competition between schools to get Mycoskie to visit them for free. I can’t remember the exact details, but it had something to do with people going without shoes for a day and whichever campus got the most people to do that would win. Something like that. My understanding is that our school technically won the competition but Mycoskie or his publisher or whoever decided to give the prize to a different, more well-known school instead because it was better press.
- As Mel would say to Buddy on The Dick Van Dyke Show: yech.