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In which John discusses the American Library Association's recent announcement that his book "Looking for Alaska" was the most challenged book in the U.S. in 2015, responds to those who try to get the book removed from schools and libraries, and discusses the role of teachers and librarians in American life.

You can find the list of the 10 most challenged books in the U.S. here: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10

Thanks to the American Library Association and the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and to all the courageous librarians and teachers out there who stand up for intellectual freedom and banned books.

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Good Morning Hank, it’s Tuesday.

So the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom just released its list for the 10 most challenged books of the year in the United States. "Challenged" meaning someone requested to have the book removed from a school or library. And it turns out the most challenged book of 2015 was Looking for Alaska, which was written by me. The book has been challenged and banned around the country for "offensive language" and "sexually explicit descriptions". I suppose this is a kind of honor, I mean Looking for Alaska contained the very same "offensive language" and "sexually explicit descriptions" 10 years ago but was much less likely to be banned because, you know, not many people had read it. Also, Looking for Alaska beat out some of my favorite books, like: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan and Fun House by Alison Bechdel, and also the Holy Bible, which came in 6th. To be fair the Bible does contain its fair share of explicit passages. Anyway, I'm often asked to respond to the banning of Looking for Alaska from schools and libraries so OK, here is my response:

Text is meaningless without context, and what usually happens with Looking for Alaska is that a parent chose one particular page of the novel to an administrator and then the book gets banned without anyone who objects to it having read more than that particular page. The scene in question involves a very awkward and ultimately failed attempt at oral sex which is described in very cold and clinical language; in fact the entire passage includes only one adjective: "nervous". And then in the book's NEXT scene two characters have a much more sensually described and passionate but much less sexually explicit interaction. That passage ends: "We didn't have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn't matter. As she slept, I whispered: "I love you, Alaska Young.".

So in context, the novel is arguing really in a rather pointed way that emotionally intimate kissing can be a whole lot more fulfilling than emotionally empty oral sex. Teenagers are critically engaged and thoughtful readers, they do not read Looking for Alaska and think "I should go have some aggressively unerotic oral sex", and they also don't read the Outsiders and think "I should join a gang", or read Divergent and think "I should jump on to moving trains". So as far as i can tell that kind of narrow prescriptive reading seems only to happen inside the offices of school superintendents. So yeah I don’t think Looking for Alaska is pornographic and I don't think its readers find it titillating, but that noted I don't think it should be up to me whether Looking for Alaska or actually any book is in a school or a library because I am not a teacher or a librarian, the highly trained, criminally underpaid professionals we employ to make those decisions. As I've discussed in the past, I don't think publicly funded learning exists primarily for the benefit of parents or even primarily for the benefit of students, it exists for the benefit of the social order. We are all better off with a well-informed, well-educated population because that population is more likely to start successful businesses and develop treatments for cancer and write musicals about treasury secretaries. And that why everyone pays taxes to fund public schools and libraries, regardless of whether you personally use the library of have kids in school. I think teachers and librarians know more about teaching and librarianship than I do, and I believe they must be allowed to do their jobs serving the whole public. But even beyond that I don't believe that books, even bad books, corrupt us. Instead I believe books challenge and interrogate, they give us windows into the lives of others and give us mirrors so that we can better see ourselves. And ultimately if you have a world view that can be undone by a novel, let me submit that the problem is not with the novel. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.