I Watch R-Rated Movies!

That just doesn’t have the same ring as this week’s battle cry of, “I read banned books!”, does it?

When CanaryTheFirst asked me to write about Banned Books Week, I scanned the list of the most frequently banned and challenged books and shook my head. It’s chock-full of classics. I mean, why on earth would anyone challenge Fahrenheit 451? The Lord of the Rings? To Kill A Mockingbird?  Really? It’s enough to send us, traditionally mild-mannered bibliophiles, to the ramparts to battle the dark forces of small-mindedness and censorship. I felt my internal hyperbole generator getting into gear.

But, as much as I am a reader, I spend most of my day and energy being a scientist–and scientists don’t deal with emotions. We’re not supposed to write in hyperbole. We’re trained to deal with data, make observations, and draw conclusions.

So, let’s look at the data, as provided by the American Library Association. For the past 20 years in the United States, there have been slightly over 10,000 challenges to books. Of those, the most challenges have come from parents (with library patrons placing second). The reasons cited are varied, but by far, the greatest number of challenges are directed to content that contains “sex”, “violence”, “foul language”, and (perhaps more ambiguously) content that is “unsuited to age group”.


The ALA’s data suggests that parents want to limit their children’s exposure to sex, violence, and offensive language.


That doesn’t seem too outrageous, does it?

I don’t even have kids and I want to limit kids’ exposure to those things. In a way, it buoys my faith in people to think that parents are aware and engaged in what their kids are reading. As a society, shouldn’t we do the same?

MPAA ratings

In fact, we do it all the time. We keep pornographic materials behind brown paper and post warnings on websites. We rate movies because we believe that there are certain things that children don’t really need to see, or things that children shouldn’t be seeing, but which are probably okay for teens.  We screen and label movies, and we leave it up to the parent to decide.

We have similar ratings systems in place for video games and television shows that seek to empower parents with information about what their kids (and they) are consuming. In most stores, children aren’t allowed to buy M-rated games without the parents being there.

Game Ratings

And yet, I think back to one of the formative series I read in my high school years. This book is listed in NPR’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Top 100The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

What about its content? Cursing? Mild. Violence? In spades. Incest? Yep. Rape? Yep.

Would I want my imaginary 10-year-old picking that up? No way! What about my 15-year-old? Maybe.

And so, after thinking about this, I wondered… why isn’t there a rating system for books? As media, what makes books free from this sort of industry regulation? My guess is that the answer lies in the issue of scale. The sheer number of books published monthly eclipse the film and game industry by orders of magnitude. And no matter how good a speed-reader you might be, it probably takes you longer to digest a book than a tv show. This combination likely makes the evaluation of books impractical if not impossible.

Even so, the question I want to put out there to the Canary Faithful is this:

By asking this question, I certainly do not want to suggest that I am somehow pro-censorship. As an adult I believe that I have the right to read whatever I damn well please. And like most of you, I shake my head with incredulity when I see a book like Harry Potter challenged on the ground of it being “occult”. But I do wonder, would its magic really be diminished if there was a little sticker in the corner that read: PG?

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