Amazonís Confusing Stance on Censorship
Amazon.com may be the biggest hub for eBook titles on the planet, not to mention a mecca for self-published authors, but that’s not where the massive online marketplace’s association with the publishing industry ends. On the contrary, in addition to selling just about everything anyone could ever want to buy, Amazon.com is also the source of considerable confusion in regards to eBook censorship policies and overall authorial free speech liberties.
For a time, one could have argued that Amazon’s anti-censorship stance actually went too far and protected texts that weren’t deserving of such protection. Case-in-point was a 2010 independently authored work that advertised itself as a guide to pedophilia. Despite uproarious controversy surrounding the title, Amazon initially stated that it would be an act of censorship “not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable.”
Ultimately, though, Amazon relented on that position. The company pulled the pedophilic content from its web store, a move that few disagreed with, but one that set off a chain reaction of censorship from a company that had only so recently claimed to be practicing staunch anti-censorship policies.
Most of the books that Amazon has forcibly eradicated from the Kindle store have been about taboo and morally distasteful subjects like pedophilia or incest. However, on one occasion, Amazon removed copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from its website. The company claimed that the titles had been added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to distribute them, but the way Amazon went about handling the already-purchased copies—by remotely deleting them from users’ Kindle devices—shows what might be the only way in which a book banning campaign would be able to work in the modern age.
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Does Book Banning Work in the Digital Age?
For decades, we’ve read and heard all about banned or “challenged” books, literary tomes that, for whatever reason, offended schools, towns, or governments enough to be eradicated from educational reading lists and local libraries. From the witchcraft of Harry Potter to the anti-religion themes at place in The Golden Compass and the rest of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and from the racist undertones of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the sexual content, violence, and profanity of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, teachers, librarians, politicians, and up-in-arms parents have, over the years, found countless different reasons to reject literature and the lessons it seeks to teach. In certain situations, extremists have even taken to burning the banned books in question, a scenario that Ray Bradbury portrayed so provocatively in his 1953 masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451. Ironically and unsurprisingly, the book was banned.
Despite ongoing reminders of the evils of censorship and the virtues of free speech and overall liberty, book banning has survived into modern times. The titles have changed, of course: instead of the witchcraft of Harry Potter, we’re worrying about the extreme violence of The Hunger Games, and instead of the alleged racism of Huckleberry Finn, we’re covering our eyes and ears to the alleged racism of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. But from simply looking at these books and at the things they are actually saying—versus what dissenters think they are saying—it’s clear that many subsets of our population are still as close-minded to the values of literature as ever before. After all, has there ever been a young adult novel that was more frank about the horrors of violence, the grotesque reality of “reality television,” the fierce objectification of celebrity, and the tyrannical, power-drunk tendencies of centralized government than The Hunger Games? History will show the value and resonance in author Suzanne Collins’ text, but does that make it any more appropriate that the book has been banned and challenged for violence that isn’t glorified in the slightest?
Similarly nonsensical protests have met Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which has been challenged for its sexually explicit content, offensive language, depictions of drug and alcohol use, and questions of race. Most of the book’s proponents claim that the “racism” allegations are unfounded and merely stem from the fact that the book takes the perspective of a Native American. Other fans of the book like it precisely for the reasons that dissenters hate it: the “explicit” or “adult” content, which provides an honest and realistic fictionalization of how most modern high schoolers already think and behave.
Questions of book banning and of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian have been in the headlines lately, after a Boise, Idaho school board’s decision to remove the book from local circulation ignited impassioned protest from students. The protest brought about the creation of a petition, which gained enough momentum to catch the eye of a few lit-loving good Samaritans from the state of Washington. The two women in question, Jennifer Lott and Sara Baker, launched a fundraising campaign to aid in the Idaho protest, ultimately coming up with over $3,000 and using it to purchase and donate 350 copies of True Diary—enough for every student who had signed the Boise petition to get one. When word of the movement reached Little, Brown Books—an imprint of Hachette and the publisher of True Diary—the publisher vowed to donate another 350 copies of the book. In other words, Boise, Idaho is now overflowing with copies of a book it tried to ban, and all of them are being distributed to students for free.
While the scenario described above is obviously a unique case, it does raise an interesting question about literary censorship. Does banning a book work if the people it is meant to be kept away from still have easy access to it? Or does the act of challenging a supposedly “offensive” novel have any purpose if the very act of banning that book is what makes students want to read it in the first place? For as long as book banning and censorship have existed, these questions have been raised in protest, but in the digital age, they have become all the more pervasive. After all, how can a book really be “banned” when readers can simply log onto Amazon or iTunes and download it as an eBook? Or when pirated digital copies are no more than a flourish of keyboard keys and a few clicks of the mouse away?
Quite simply, accessibility of these titles can no longer be halted in the way that it once was. As a result, the “banned books” list has become almost synonymous with the “essential” or “important reading list.” The works that land on ALA’s “Most Challenged Books” list each year are cultural lightning rods, books that generate nationwide discussion, books that give way to film adaptations, and ironically, books whose reach ends up being so far-reaching that they become unavoidable and unforgettable. It’s hard to imagine that this result was what parents, teachers, churches, and politicians were looking to accomplish when they began challenging books in the first place, but with the help of technology, that’s where we have landed today, and frankly, it’s a better world for that fact.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.