In My Own Words: Book banning, review bombing and censorship

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“The right to speak and the right to publish under the First Amendment has been interpreted widely to protect individuals and society from government attempts to suppress ideas and information, and to forbid government censorship of books, magazines, and newspapers as well as art, film, music and materials on the internet.” – The American Library Association 

Book banning and review bombing: it’s interesting how these two forms of censorship come from different ends of the political spectrum. The challenges to works that speak about slavery, the LGBTQ community and the Holocaust, or which include individuals striving to understand their sexuality come from the Right end of the political spectrum. Parents seek not only to prevent their children from reading these works, but all children by having them removed from school library shelves. State legislatures are also working to make certain these books are not available in public libraries – censoring what their citizens can read. The range of censored books is bewildering: the only thing they share is that someone finds the work disturbing for sometimes unnamed reasons.

The reverse side of this comes from the Left end of the political spectrum and takes the form of review bombing: that’s placing no star or one star reviews on the social media site Goodreads or condemning the works on TikTok. The reason behind the review bombing is that the reviewers – many of whom have not even read the book – believe the work doesn’t offer an enlightened view of the world and its problems. Recent examples include the protests against Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Snow Forest” simply because it is set in Russia (any work featuring Russia is considered an affront to those who support Ukraine in the current war) and “The Boy With the Star Tattoo” by Talia Carner, which offers a positive view of the state of Israel, the Youth Aliyah program after World War II and the Six-Day War. (A review of Carner’s work will appear in a future issue of The Reporter.) Gilbert pulled her book before it appeared in stores. Carner’s work has just been published: she readily admits that it is a Zionist novel and makes no apologies for it being one. 

Both groups are trying to do the same thing: prevent people from reading a book with which they disagree. Sometimes all it takes is a description of the work to make them uncomfortable or note that it offers a political viewpoint with which they disagree. But isn’t that one of the most important reasons for reading – to challenge ourselves, to hear a different point of view or to discover a new way of looking at the world? That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll change our opinions, but learning how other people think can help us make better and more educated decisions. Yes, we might find someone’s ideas offensive or they may trigger an emotional reaction in us we would rather not have. But we can choose not to read them. The important word here is choice. That means not preventing other people from reading them. 

Freedom of choice: that is supposed to be an American value, but both sides of the spectrum are working to limit our freedom. Freedom of choice means that you don’t have to buy or read a book, whether it’s one that’s been banned or one that’s been review bombed. That is your choice. But telling me that I can’t read those books by making them unavailable is censorship and goes against American values. “The right to speak and the right to publish” means not just those with whom we agree, but everyone.