Every year, book lovers across the world dedicate the last week of September to celebrating and raising awareness of banned books. The event, known as Banned Books Week, was originally founded in 1982 by library activist Judith Krug in response to an uptick in public challenges to individual texts.
Four decades later, following the advent of the internet and the increased inclusion of diverse voices in the publishing industry, books are still a source of social unrest. According to PEN America, over 1,600 different titles were banned during the 2021-2022 school year. Schools, bookstores and libraries across the world are grappling with the moral dilemma: when is it okay to ban a text from public consumption?
This semester, in Room 2 of Webster University’s Pearson House, English professor Karla Armbruster and the students in her Books on Trial class will attempt to answer this question.
“I really think it’s a time when we need to be aware of the history of how some of these book-banning movements have played out and the important issues at stake,” Armbruster said.
This is a long-standing topic of interest for Armbruster. At Webster University, she teaches a seminar course on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, who is one of the most frequently banned writers of all time.
Earlier this year, Morrison’s novel, “The Bluest Eye,” was banned by the school board in Wentzville, Missouri, for its depictions of graphic sexual violence, a decision Armbruster sees as ignoring the important issues of racism, misogyny and trauma that the story illuminates for its readers.
Armbruster plans to teach “The Bluest Eye” in her Books on Trial course, with in-class discussions culminating in a panel about the text and the long list of school board book bans it belongs to.
“There are a lot of school boards that are taking very strong positions on certain books and trying to get school districts to eliminate [them] from the curriculum and school libraries,” Armbruster said. “I think a lot of times, people talk about these books, and they haven’t actually read them or really thought about them carefully. We need to talk about what exactly is in these books, in order to start conversations about free speech and about whose rights are in conflict with whom.”
Within the Webster University English department, most students are well-acquainted with book bans, as many of them are avid bookworms who read some of the texts in question at especially young ages. One such student is senior English major Evan Webster, who is taking Books on Trial this semester. Webster looks forward to having a place to investigate a topic that has interested him throughout his life.
“I decided to take this class because I thought that I would get to discuss certain books that are either problematic in their content or that somehow challenge a social construct,” Webster said. “I think it will be a low-pressure environment for talking about important issues.”
The plan is for these conversations to venture outside of the classroom, too, as Books on Trial will feature several lectures and panels led by Webster University faculty and other outside experts. Along with the discussion about “The Bluest Eye,” these events will include a discussion of J.K. Rowling and transphobia, presentations on the legality of book banning, and a lecture on the historical use of book bans as tools to quash the community organization of minority groups. All lectures and panels will be fully open to the public.
“Book banning is obviously a very important current issue,” Armbruster said. “Hopefully it will be something that other people can add onto, even people who aren’t in the class.”