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Fighting Back Against Book Banners

When Suzanne Nossel came to PEN America in 2013, the free-speech organization’s long-standing participation in Banned Books Week struck her as slightly out of step with the times.

“It seemed so archaic,” Nossel, who serves as PEN’s chief executive, told me recently. But now, rather suddenly, “this is a matter of pressing national concern.”


Walking last week through a New-York Historical Society exhibit, “A Century of Defending the Written Word,” related to PEN America’s centennial, I was struck by one photograph in particular: a disturbing black-and-white image of books being destroyed in a large bonfire in 1933 Berlin as a bystander raised his arm in a Nazi salute.

I asked Nossel to put what’s happening now in historical context. Have we been here before?

She replied that there certainly are global comparisons, as that Berlin photo suggests, but to her knowledge it hasn’t happened at this level of intensity and scope in the United States.

“What has reared its head now is a systematic effort to wage the political war and the culture war by using our schools and libraries as a battleground,” she said. Pointing out a pile of books in the exhibit that have been banned or threatened over the years — from Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Maia Kobabe’s memoir, “Gender Queer,” a particular target these days in school libraries — co-curator Bridget Colman noted that this was only a tiny representation. “The whole case could be filled up with banned books.”

What can Americans who cherish free expression do?

Markus Dohle, chief executive of Penguin Random House, who grew up in postwar Germany and has worked in repressive societies in Europe and Asia, is making a personal donation of $500,000 to combat widespread book banning in the United States. “It’s unimaginable,” he told the New York Times about what he sees happening today. “And it is very urgent, and it ties into the future of our democracy.”

Read entire article at Washington Post