To kick off the Banned Books Week programming, Dr. Emily J. M. Knox, Ph.D., spoke at Albion College on Thursday, delving into the discourse of censorship.
Launched in 1982, the movement against book banning was sparked by the rise in challenges towards books. Knox, who was six at the time, first heard about it from her mom, a librarian of 32 years. Her love for reading and books and curiosity about book banning ultimately led her to a career in studying the patterns of book banning.
“I really like thinking about ‘why do we care about reading? why do we care about what other people read?’” Knox said. “How we think about public institutions, how they are supported and what their purpose is.”
Knox, an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois- Urbana Champaign School of Information Sciences grew up in Columbia, Maryland. As a child, she was involved in various activities ranging from ballet to playing piano, all while avidly reading. After going through lists of books that her mother brought home, her fascination with banned books increased.
“I remember my mom bringing me the list and me going through and saying I read this book, I haven’t read this book, I read this book, I haven’t read this book, and really wanting to read this book,” Knox said. “I remember doing that almost every year and just being fascinated by the reasons people gave, and [thinking] was this a book I read already [or] oh I’ve got to go to the library and get that book.”
Following the lecture, I took the time to sit down with Knox for a chance to hear more about her journey. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Could you talk a little bit more about the influence of other ideas and cultures in terms of banned books and literature?
So, the way I think about books is that it’s a way of traveling without leaving and it can open up a world that you would not know about right. For example– I was talking networks and translation– I’m currently reading Japanese mysteries which is a genre I did not even know about but it showed up in one of my many many newsletters about books, and apparently, there was an entire golden age of mysteries in Japan. I already read a lot of golden age mysteries from the UK so I have an entryway because I already like mysteries. I’m really excited I can read genre fiction from an entirely different culture and a genre that I really enjoy, and along with the tropes of the genre, you get to see it in a different world. You also get to know the characters and you can you know lead yourself down a path of well I’ve read this one, now let me try this other one, let me see what other people are talking about it on Goodreads.
How did your education and your liberal arts degree impact you?
[My degree] was in religious studies. I did not [have a minor]. I took Music 101, History of Music and I took the second part of it and it was incredibly difficult and I could not bring myself to do it. That’s one of my main regrets is not finishing the minor. You’re introduced to so many different things when you have a liberal arts education so we’re able to take all sorts of classes. I took a class in English and it centered [on] the city. We just read a bunch of novels about the city and I still have those novels. I remember taking the class. I was not a music minor but I took a bunch of music classes and I did performances. I think it’s just the exposure that matters. I was exposed to a lot of new ideas. I would say the best class I took in that was my Intro to Sociology class. That was the one that really helped me think more clearly about US society.
When you think of the future of the kind of work you do, what gives you a sense of hope?
I’m really hopeful that your generation and the generations that [are] coming next will really work for a better future. That we will go through whatever we are going through right now. It is very difficult, it’s sometimes frightening, scary, [we] don’t know what’s coming. But I really have hope that our lives, our world will be different, [and] that it’ll be more just. That if we can show people how the world can be different–and that’s what books do–that we will have a more just world.
How have the trends in banned books changed over the years?
In what we call the freedom of expression community, we’ve never seen anything quite like this. The only thing that came even close was in the 1980s like with the Satanic panic but this is beyond that and nothing has even touched this. It is not just against the books but against the institutions themselves, so against schools and libraries. It’s very worrying, we just don’t know what’s going to happen.
How has the pandemic affected such trends?
I actually think that the reason we are seeing all these books being challenged is that school came home. All these parents, school is a black box right, you send your kid off, they come back. Who knows what happens there? Covid meant that school was at the dining room table and I think a lot of parents were surprised by what their kids were being taught. They’d never seen school in you know 20 years, 30 years.
What’s next for you in your work, what are you looking forward to?
My next book’s [Foundations of Intellectual Freedom] coming out in December [and I’m] very excited about that. I’m working on a few different articles– about the banning of “Maus”, the geography of censorship, about prison censorship. I’m hoping to get a grant with my research team member, Shannon Altman, to get a grant to study book banning that is going on right now.
National Banned Books Week began on Sunday. Albion College will be hosting an inclusive policy and practices advocacy event on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. on the main floor of Mudd Library.