The New York Public Library Provides Free Online Access to Banned Books: Catcher in the Rye, Stamped & More

Each year in mid-Sep­tem­ber, we cel­e­brate Banned Books Week, and each year I see a hand­ful of peo­ple argu­ing that the cel­e­bra­tion, or memo­r­i­al, is self indul­gent and out of touch. No one in the U.S. seri­ous­ly tries to ban books, right? Book ban­ning — as Gayle King said last Sep­tem­ber on CBS Morn­ings — is “an issue we tend to asso­ciate with the past.”

Yet even before the recent moral pan­ics over “crit­i­cal race the­o­ry” and gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty issues, teach­ers and librar­i­ans would have strong­ly dis­agreed that attempts to ban books ever went away. Books are chal­lenged all the time in front of school boards, and have, many times in the recent past, appeared on lists hand­ed around by state and fed­er­al leg­is­la­tors.

The lat­est round of book ban­nings rep­re­sents an esca­la­tion, rather than a return, of the tac­tic. Not that law­mak­ers are like­ly to have read any of 850 or so books on a recent list of sus­pects. But too many seem eager to endorse bills that restrict what stu­dents can read, teach­ers can teach, and libraries can lend — leg­is­la­tion sole­ly based on the stan­dard of “com­fort.” As in… if the facts of Amer­i­can his­to­ry make some stu­dents (or their par­ents) uncom­fort­able, then damn the facts of Amer­i­can his­to­ry.….

Ta-Nahasi Coates — whose Between the World and Me was banned in some com­mu­ni­ties in 2020 — tells King that this is no coin­ci­dence. “For most of Amer­i­can his­to­ry,” he says, “African Amer­i­can authors have not had the pur­chase on the Amer­i­can con­science that they do right now.” The same goes for LGBTQ authors and writ­ers from oth­er mar­gin­al­ized groups, whose books are chal­lenged and banned in schools and libraries with aggres­sive fre­quen­cy.

What Coates calls a “pur­chase on the Amer­i­can con­science” is what we might also call empa­thy — a qual­i­ty that good writ­ing inspires in curi­ous read­ers, and that many peo­ple seem to find threat­en­ing. Every democ­ra­cy, how­ev­er, must learn that it is “igno­rance [that] is dan­ger­ous,” as pres­i­dent of the New York Pub­lic Library Tony Marx writes, “bread­ing hate and divi­sion.” Learn­ing about, and car­ing about, the expe­ri­ences of oth­ers does the oppo­site.

To keep banned books freely avail­able to read­ers who want access to them, the New York Pub­lic Library has part­nered with pub­lish­ers in a project called Books for All to reach read­ers wher­ev­er they may be. Marx emphat­i­cal­ly states the need for such an effort:

The recent instances of both attempt­ed and suc­cess­ful book ban­ning — pri­mar­i­ly on titles that explore race, LGBTQ+ issues, reli­gion, and his­to­ry — are extreme­ly dis­turb­ing and amount to an all-out attack on the very foun­da­tion of our democ­ra­cy.… The Library’s role is to make sure no per­spec­tive, no idea, no iden­ti­ty is erased.

There are cur­rent­ly four books offered under the pro­jec­t’s aegis through the end of May, and they’re avail­able to read­ers across the Unit­ed States:

Speak | Lau­rie Halse Ander­son (Square Fish / Macmil­lan Pub­lish­ers)

King and the Drag­on­flies | Kacen Cal­len­der (Scholas­tic)

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You | Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Ken­di (Lit­tle, Brown Books for Young Read­ers / Hachette Book Group)

The Catch­er in the Rye | J.D. Salinger (Lit­tle, Brown and Com­pa­ny / Hachette Book Group)

To access these titles, all of which have faced bans or chal­lenges, you will need to down­load the NYPL’s free read­er app, Sim­plyE, for iOS or Android–all from the Books for All site. Then you can read the book right away “with our with­out a library card,” the library notes. “No waits, no fines.”

One hopes the Books for All project will expand to offer more titles from the increas­ing­ly greater num­ber of books being pushed out of pub­lic view because they make those in pow­er uncom­fort­able. Or, bet­ter yet, one hopes that dozens of sim­i­lar projects will arise; that the slo­gan “books for all” can become a real­i­ty, regard­less of who makes pol­i­cy. Learn more and sign up for your free Sim­plyE account at the Books for All site.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 850 Books a Texas Law­mak­er Wants to Ban Because They Could Make Stu­dents Feel Uncom­fort­able

America’s First Banned Book: Dis­cov­er the 1637 Book That Mocked the Puri­tans

Read 14 Great Banned & Cen­sored Nov­els Free Online: For Banned Books Week 2014

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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