Photo: Han Lee / Flickr
Photo: Han Lee / Flickr

Earlier this month, the American Library Association released the 2016 report on “The State of America’s Libraries,” which not only discussed efforts being made around the country to improve public education, but also featured the list of the Ten Most Challenged Books of this past year.

The ranking was made based on the number of official challenges the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom received throughout the year. The most challenged book of 2015? John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Green’s young adult novel was criticized for its offensive language, sexual explicitness, and unsuitability for the age group.

Other common reasons for the challenges included homosexuality, religious viewpoint, violence, and sex education. E. L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey was the second most challenged book for reasons of being “poorly written” and for raising “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it.”

Many of the challenged books, including I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, consider issues of gender and sexuality in children and teenagers.

An interesting newcomer coming in at #6? The Holy Bible. The Bible has not made the list since the list’s inception in 2001. Naturally, the book was cited for its “religious viewpoint.”

What might this controversial list say about modern society?

Does this list reflect the culture of 2016 America? I am inclined to say yes. Although the challenges featured in this list were most likely made by teachers and parents looking out for the best interests of kids and young adults, the issues these books present move beyond elementary, middle, and high school.

Questions of gender and sexuality in particular have come to the political foreground most dramatically in recent years with the legalization of same-sex marriage in America in June of 2015 and the fight for LGBTQIA rights that continues to make headlines.

Questions of religion, similarly, are constantly being posed, with regards to both gay rights and marriage and with regards to secularization and moral values.

What our favorite books say about society

Perhaps what we censor, but that which we find favorable may serve as a better place to discover our cultural and social inclination. The New York Times’ Best Sellers list seems to do just that.

From the Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction list, we can find multiple memoirs, histories, and practical books for self-improvement. The fist book on the list is the recently published memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt.

Eric Larson’s Dead Wake and Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat are both histories that have been in the top 15 for 31 and 98 weeks, respectively, making them by far the consistently popular books on the list.

What about these makes them so fascinating? Larson’s exploration of the sinking of the Lusitania and Brown’s novel of an American crew team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics are both stories of painful and tense experiences that precede even more catastrophic world events. As readers, it seems, we are interested in disaster.

Reading between the lines

What do these books of harsh realities say about us? Perhaps something about our pessimism, our realism, or even our hope for understanding the past and improving the future.

Ariana Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution and Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better (author of the popular The Power of Habit), on the other hand, focus on scientific and psychological ways we can improve our daily lives. If the histories we love remind us of the past, our self-improvement manifestos might inspire us to create our futures.

What we approve of and what we seek to remove are basic indicators of where the tensions exist in our modern society. While peering back at our past and looking forward to our future, we are, nonetheless, compelled to answer the dominating questions of our cultural and political environment.