Canaries in the Coal Mine: Banned Books Week, September 24 - October 1

ALA Banned Books Week 2011 LogoEven as you read this, some nameless canary is sitting alone at a keyboard pecking away at one or another of your dearly-held and unquestioned truths. With time and because of that canary's work, that truth will be shown to be false. And you will be better for it. We all will.

Look, no one wants to be the canary in the coal mine. The line to volunteer for the job is invariably short. If you do it well, you end up with X-es for eyes. Everyone else gets to live thanks to you. But you--you're just dead. Yet, the fact is we need canaries. We need someone to tell us when the air we breathe and the thought we think has gone toxic.

We should be grateful for canaries. We should sing their praises, but it remains the most thankless of jobs. You can't really fault us for our feelings about canaries. They're kind of creepy. Who wants to be constantly reminded that something as sure as your next breath is not all that sure?

Then there is the problem of identification. Not all canaries look like canaries. Some look like Harriet Beecher Stowe or Rachel Carson or Aldous Huxley or Barbara Ehrenreich. Some look like you or me. And what makes identification even more difficult is the fact that some of them are not canaries at all. They are wolves (or lions or three-toed sloths or even cute little bunny rabbits) in canary’s clothing. It is nearly impossible to know which is a real canary and which is not. So we can’t know for certain who we should listen to and who we should ask to sit down and be quiet.

So what do we do?

One course of action is to ignore all of them and just go about our business, thinking the same old thoughts, making the same old mistakes and ignoring that strange smell in the air. Another way would be to let only the canaries that sing the songs we like--that make us feel good about ourselves and the world we have made--have their say. But then that kind of defeats the purpose of having a canary around in the first place. A third course of action would be to let everyone say their piece, then with our critical thinking skills and the innate human need to know the truth, decide which ideas deserve further investigation and which should go to the landfill like the doctrines of women's inferiority and the earth-centered universe, like phrenology and Social Darwinism, and like the idea that if you keep making that face it will get stuck that way: all ideas that were once unquestioned, but are now known to be untrue, if not dangerous.

I guess what it all boils down to is this: Do you want to be the one who silences the canary who could save us all?

Banned Books Week is an annual event organized by the American Library Association, "celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.  Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information..."  For more on Banned Books Week, BBW programs and events, as well as the Virtual Read-Out, please visit

Below is the 2010 American Library Association list of most challenged books. You are encouraged to read one or two—if only to see what the fuss is about. Perhaps you could read the one you think you would most disagree with, and see if by reading it with an open mind, you don't find something in it--if only an artful turn of phrase--that deserves to be read or needs to be said.

And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin RichardsonCover Art: And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Lush by Natasha Friend
What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya SonesCover Art: What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
Revolutionary Voices edited by Amy Sonnie
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

As always, rebuttals, corrections, comments and suggestions for future posts are sincerely encouraged and warmly accepted. Thank you for reading.