Ratings, warning labels don’t belong on books

Movies have ratings and music has warning labels, and some concerned parents are pushing to apply similar types of advisories on books.

Literature is different from other sources of entertainment, though. If a child is bad at watching movies or listening to music, it will not hold him or her back in school.

Books should not be labeled with any kind of ratings system. Differentiating between the young adult section and the adult section is already enough, and maybe too much, depending on how strictly those divisions are enforced.

The Orange County Library System (OCLS) in Florida does not allow anyone younger than 13 or older than 18 to enter the young-adult section, called “Club Central,” without an escort, according to the OCLS Web site. Since any non-young-adult who is at a young-adult reading level is either an above or below average reader, the Orange County Library System really just ensures that anyone who isn’t normal will be escorted through the library while looking for books.

Central Florida seems to be the command center of book censorship supporters. In October 2009, the Orlando Sentinel ran a story about a group of parents who wanted several books written for teens moved out of the young-adult section of Orlando libraries because of their explicit content. The group of parents also wanted “mature-content” labels to be placed on certain books.

Six days later, the Sentinel held a poll asking readers whether they thought books should include warning labels, and over 60 percent of voters supported the labels.

Warning labels would help inform parents, but, like warning labels in the music industry, they would mostly serve to attract the audience they are meant to repel. And if, somehow, an effective system is ever devised and children do not learn about sexuality, drugs and vampires from books, they will learn about them from “South Park.”

A rating system for books would depend on the judgment of some sort of ratings committee, rather than the judgment of parents. Truly responsible parents who are concerned about what their children are reading can read the books ahead of time to make sure they are appropriate. A ratings system would allow those parents to sit back and let strangers do the parenting.

The American Library Association has a “Freedom to Read Statement,” which reads, “Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad.”

Warning labels’ biggest flaw is that they effectively serve as a form of censorship. Some argue that they only provide information, but what happens when, based on that information, conservative retailers like Wal-Mart stops selling books with warning labels on them, as they now do with music? Authors would stop writing for the sake of creativity and start writing for the sake of business, and children would stop reading “Fahrenheit 451” and start reading “The O’Reilly Factor for Kids.”

Books aren’t cigarettes or electric fences — they don’t need warning labels to inform people of their danger. Illiteracy is a bigger concern than explicit content; although the U.S. has a high literacy rate, it is falling behind in education. Warning people of the dangers of books won’t help.

Jack thinks “Club Central” sounds like a nightclub. Contact him at jlfitzpa@asu.edu