Banned Books Week

September 25 through October 2 is Banned Books Week, celebrating freedom of speech and the fight against censorship. It’s hard for me to believe, sometimes, that in 2010 in an allegedly enlightened society we even have a problem with this, but we do; proof, I think, that we’re not actually anywhere near an enlightened society. Let me be very clear: I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to express their opinion, and that includes both authors and concerned parents/teachers/etc. If you think a book is trashy or evil or whatever, please tell the world–that is your right. But as soon as you take the next step and actually restrict others’ access to that book, you have crossed a line. You have attacked and limited someone’s freedom. Freedom only works when it is granted to all people equally, and the simple truth is that your freedom to dislike a book is the very same freedom that allows other people to read it.

The list of frequently banned books is like a parade of history’s greatest literature: The Catcher in the Rye, the Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and on and on and on. The only reason the list isn’t longer is that it only goes back to 1901; when you look at the deeper range of history you get books like Huckleberry Finn, which might be the most banned book ever. From a certain point of view it’s no surprise that these books are being challenged, because most of them are, by nature, very challenging books. The best books are the ones that reach out and poke you, forcing you to think about things in a different way, and for some people the only reaction is to poke back. Consider The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, which exposes the horrible conditions created by the industrial revolution, and the horrors endured by early factory workers. That book challenged society by forcing us confront an injustice we wanted to ignore, and the people who most benefited from that injustice fought back by banning it: it was burned by Nazis in 1933 and banned in the USSR in 1956.

Consider also the most famous banned book of my generation, Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. The book was critical of Islam, and as such earned not only a widespread ban but an actual sentence of death: Rushdie has lived in hiding ever since, bookstores have been forced to remove it from their shelves after receiving death and bomb threats, and even the people who helped publish it have been targeted and sometimes killed (the Japanese translator was murdered, and the Italian and Norwegian translators were attacked and seriously wounded). The book challenged a group of people by forcing them to think about their religion in a new light, and certain members of that group fought back.

Now let’s consider Animal Farm, by George Orwell. It’s a very short book, a quick novella that’s more of an extended allegory than anything else, using talking animals to expose the extremes of communism and the underhanded crimes of the USSR. You’d think such a staunchly anti-communist book would be embraced in the US, but no: Orwell had the temerity to imply that even though Marxism never works in practice, its principles are sound in theory, and for that he has been repeatedly attacked and banned. The book asked people to reconsider their thoughts on politics, and some people hate reconsidering things–they hate the mere suggestion that there are other ideas out there–so they poked back and tried to have the book removed from schools and libraries. They didn’t want anybody to read the book and agree with it, so they tried to suppress it and its ideas.

I’m going to be very clear here: this kind of behavior is abominable. Restricting access to words and ideas because they are different from your own is the act of a tyrant and a coward. If you think your ideas are so flimsy they can be knocked down by an opposing book, you don’t have very much faith in your ideas; the more effective, more ethical answer to the problem is to write a book of your own, explaining your ideas as clearly as the opposing author explains his, and let people read both and choose for themselves.

I like to call this the Sleeping Beauty principle. In the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty’s parents were afraid that one day she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die, so they destroyed all spinning wheels to make sure their daughter never came into contact with them. Inevitably, of course, she did, and not knowing what it was she pricked her finger and the parents’ nightmares came true. The better strategy would have been to show her a spinning wheel early on, teaching her what they’re for and how to use them safely, so that when she got older and started making her own choices she was better prepared. If Sleeping Beauty’s parents had been a little smarter, a little less scared, and a little more trusting of their daughter, they could have avoided the whole problem through education instead of making it worse through tyranny and destruction. (Not to mention, how did their society function for 16 years with no spinning wheels? What did they wear?)

You can apply this principle to any book that people want to ban. In 2008 the second most challenged book in America was the His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, thanks to the movie coming out and several religious groups warning people that the books are pro-atheist. The cowardly, anti-freedom solution to that problem is to picket the movie theaters and demand that libraries stop letting people read the books; the intelligent, moral solution is to educate people about your own beliefs and let them choose for themselves. If your kids want to read the books, you should read them too–read them first if you’re really nervous about it–and then talk with your children about the characters and ideas. Do you agree with them? Do you disagree? Why? Your child will be able to consider the ideas, learn why you disagree with them, and will gain with a much stronger appreciation for your beliefs than they would if you simply hid them in a back room. When they do eventually come into contact with opposing ideas (and they inevitably will, no matter what you do), they will have a much firmer foundation to stand on, and will be able to make informed choices on the issue.

The fourth most challenged book in the US in 2009 was To Kill a Mockingbird, called out for offensive language and racism. Books like this are the hardest to deal with because of the way they’re written: To Kill a Mockingbird is about, at the deepest level, our urgent need to accept people for who they are, to allow equality in society, to treat everyone the same, and to to give everyone respect regardless of race, gender, religion, or mental disability. The trouble is, it does this through the lens of an older time when words like “nigger” were much more common; our modern sensitivity to this word makes this proudly anti-racist book look very racist on the surface. Most of the challenges to this book, as with Huckleberry Finn and similar works, come from the African American community, and I’ve seen first-hand what happens when school-children who don’t know any better are suddenly exposed to old-school racism and racist epithets through ostensibly innocent education. What’s the answer? Do we stop reading a great book, that teaches highly admirable principles, because of the way it teaches them? I can’t, in good conscience, say yes. I’ve seen the effects of mishandled knowledge, but I’ve also seen the life-long effects of knowledge properly studied and internalized. To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and books like them had a huge effect on me and the way I treat other people; because I had teachers and parents willing to really discuss the books, I was able to see past the vocabulary to the messages underneath, learning in the process the value of brotherhood and the perils of intolerance. I suppose the great irony of the situation is that the best way to learn about accepting new ideas is to read the kinds of books people ban.

As an author–and even more than that, as an author with a book coming out this week–I obviously have a vested interest in a fight against book bannings. I wouldn’t even be surprised if someone eventually attacked my books (Kirkus Reviews ended their glowing review of I Am Not a Serial Killer with the line: “Buy multiples where it won’t be banned”). But this is not about money, this is about right and wrong. We should all have a vested interest in our freedom from censorship simply because we are human beings–we are thinking creatures, blessed with a matchless capacity for thought, consideration, and perception. We should oppose bannings and restrictions because it is the right thing to do, and because the world would be a sadder, more dismal, more frightening place with censorship in it.

I have a saying that I’ve shared a few times in the past: good art will either challenge or inspire, and great art will do both. Do yourself a favor this week and read a book that challenges you–read something that makes you see the world in a new light, or from a different angle, or simply with a new frame of mind. The ALA’s Frequently Challenged Classics list is a great place to start, but here’s my personal recommendations:

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman
Equus, a play by Peter Shaffer

21 Responses to “Banned Books Week”

  1. Thanks for this discussion. In my opinion, in many cases, having your books challenged or banned is a high compliment.

    I wonder what it is about the folks that challenge and try to ban books that they don’t seem to have the ability to step back and think metacognitively about what they’re doing.

    Ultimately, they absolutely ARE trying to take away another’s right to filter their own reading material. We each have the right to ban a book or movie or any other art in our own lives. Just close the book, turn off the movie, or turn away from the sculpture.

    I read and somewhat enjoyed Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. I think he faltered somewhat as the series went on, but I bought the books and am excited for my kids to read them as they grow up. That’s an important set of books for a lot of reasons.

    Too bad the movie was such a dud.

  2. Tom says:

    Thank you for that posting. You made some very good, and very true points. I think the most important part is the considering of new ideas. Just because an idea is new, does not mean it is inherently valid or invalid. We should all take the time to consider ideas that need examination, and put them in context to determine for ourselves their validity.

    That being said, I do have one thought. I do think that disagreements with a particular work’s ideas or portrayals, where they are simply discussing their ideas as opposed to the authors, also should be considered without being labeled censorship. There are too many who demand that their works and ideas be accepted and at the same time attack those who disagree. This, I think, also violates the freedom that these same authors demand.

    Again, this was a very thought-provoking post. I like the idea of presenting works with discussion. Children, I think need that kind of involvement.

  3. Andrea says:

    One place where this issue becomes a little greyer is in school libraries. Should elementary school libraries have books like To Kill a Mockingbird? Some 5th-6th graders might be ready to understand the issues, but with a limited amount of money, the libraries can’t have available every single book.

  4. Alan says:

    I agree with pretty much everything that was said. I do take some exception with the His Dark Materials trilogy because I read the first two books without understanding that it had a pro-atheist message. Only once you get to the end of the second book and into the third does that message become clear. I would have had a lot more respect for Phillip Pullman if he had presented those ideas from the beginning of the first book instead of making a bait-and-switch towards the end of the series.

    Still, I have never called for the books to be banned, though I have warned a few people about what is in store for them should they consider reading them.

  5. Christoph says:

    I absolutely hate the idea of books being banned, just as I am opposed to banning things like video games. Now, I donĀ“t want to rant about that, censorship is kind of a hot topic with me, seeing the plans by the German government for banning all kinds of video games and barring access of specific internet sites without anyone being able to control which sites.
    You know, I have read most of the books you cite. Personally, I felt really challenged by the “His Dark Materials” books. I loved them, even as they made me think. I even got my parents to read them. My mother teaches religion and english, and she enjoyed them thoroughly.

  6. Sarah Olson says:

    I liked the Sleeping Beauty principle, that’s exactly how I see things. Parents should be teaching their children what to look for in a book and what topics they’d like them to avoid. It shouldn’t be the librarian’s responsibility to restrict books. They should be there to find and recommend books.

    To Andrea – a library can’t afford to have every book, and of course no one is asking that every library have a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Libraries need to stock books based on reading level and comprehension level of the children. That’s a given. But banning the book is a whole different beast.

  7. admin says:

    I think there’s a lot to be said for age-appropriateness; I’ve told my children they can’t read my books until they’re 14, because I know that right now, at the ages of 7 and 9, they’re simply not ready to understand a story about a sociopathic killer. Part of the reason it’s okay for me to make that decision is because I’m their father, not their teacher or librarian or neighbor–I don’t think anyone else’s 7-year-old should be reading my books either, but it’s not my place to forbid it. Parents taking an active hand in their children’s education and reading habits is, at it’s heart, the reason education works (and, increasingly, the reason US education doesn’t work at all).

    That said, there are hundreds of examples of people using “age-appropriateness” as an excuse to restrict books for entirely other reasons. Twilight is a great example–people all over the country have objected to the book’s portrayal of sex, so they try to get it removed from high schools and libraries because it’s “not appropriate for teens” when what they really mean is “it’s dirty and I don’t like it.” There is nothing in the Twilight series that an American teen of any sophistication isn’t mature enough to deal with, especially if parents and teachers read it with them like I suggested.

  8. Steve D says:

    I was just thinking about this on the way to work this morning. I agree with you 100%. Banning a book is silly, and shows a lack of education and teaching.

    To Kill A Mockingbird is an excellent, excellent novel. To think that it would be banned because of its themes makes me so disappointed in the masses. I also found it interesting that so many novels were challenged due to word usages and themes, yet Lovecraft was pointed out on that list. At least be consistent, you know?

    I feel that once you hit a certain age, all bets are off. Should I want to read anything, it should be available. As a writer, I should be able to include anything I want without fear of it being “challenged” or “banned.” Now, if the content of said novels cause them to sell poorly, then whatever. But at least those novels are available.

    On a personal note, I loved novels like Mockingbird, and Heart of Darkness. The Golden Compass, I felt was totally overrated. I didn’t feel challenged or whatever Pullman was hoping for. I felt bored.

  9. Tom says:

    I think Mr. admin hit the nail right on the head. If I ever have children, I expect that there would be some books I would read and discuss with them, some I would discuss with them as they read it, and some I would tell them they shouldn’t read and explain why, appropriate to their age.

  10. SaintEhlers says:

    I agree of course.

    Of course also, I don’t allow pornography in the house and get in a righteous indignation when my children sneak in books that scare them and keep them (and me) awake all night.

    In addition, I think it right and appropriate that pornography be kept from the public library entirely. (not just school libraries). I guess I don’t know if it should be criminal, but given the outright damage pornography does to its consumers and its producers, I don’t feel bad “censoring” it. I don’t consider Larry Flynt a heroic champion of free speech.

  11. Jennifer Monsen says:

    You know, on an unrelated note, I’d heard that it was Banned Books Week from a poster outside of a nearby bookstore, but hadn’t known what it meant. I walked inside, and under some pirate-looking decorations for “Banned Books” I found Harry Potter, Twilight, Neverwhere, and other popular books. I suppose some of them are occasionally banned in some circles, but none of the usual banned books were present. Needless to say, I left feeling a bit confused.

  12. People are always afraid that whatever ideological position they hold can’t stand on it’s own. It’s true for Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Republicans and Democrats, and therefore they try to stop anyone who would have a counter argument.
    I fully support free speech and the need to have all arguments out in the public forum. That being said I have a problem with people that take an unpopular position and demand that their ideas have a place in the world (which they do) and then place negative terms on anyone who would disagree, Racist, Anti-Semite, Idiot, ect.
    All ideas have a place and though we may not agree with someone we should not ever attack a person for having divergent ideas.

  13. Heather Muir says:

    Shannon Hale blogged just last week about someone trying to ban Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson because they thought it should “be classified as soft core pornography.” If anyone who has read that book can say that, I think it says a lot more about the person trying to ban the book than the book itself.

    I read this book in an Adolescent Literature Class in college (whose entire curriculum was banned or challenged books). It is such a powerful book and is able to deal with rape without being graphic.

    Read Shannon’s blog post here:
    http://oinks.squeetus.com/2010/09/speak-loudly.html

  14. Hannah says:

    I think books should come with ratings, just like movies; not just ‘young adult’ and all that, but like: This books contains such-and-such. If you want to read a trashy book, go ahead! But as long as the public knows what each book contains, at least they can make the decisions for themselves. If you don’t want to be exposed to something, thats your choice. But be warned.
    I don’t really understand why To Kill a Mockingbird would be banned, it was controversial in the fifties but I’d like to think people are more aware of racism and its dangers nowadays…

  15. Greg says:

    I’m a big free speech proponent, but I find that I have to keep myself in check at times. The reaso: I’m a big believer in discussing issues in a civil manner, so sometimes I’ll find myself thinking that people who say nasty things in “defense” of their beliefs (more often in offense of others beliefs) that they shouldn’t be allowed to talk in such a negative tone.

    But free speech cuts both ways. They have every right to attack my (or others’) beliefs, deplorable though their methods may be in certain cases. That’s where free speech really gets tested. When Westboro Baptist Church says things about why American soldiers are being killed overseas, things that I find deplorable and appalling, it is still their right to say it. You have to take the bad with the good.

  16. Arlene says:

    Whenever the topic of banned books is brought up, I always think of that scene in “Field of Dreams” when the mom goes to that meeting in the school gym and ends up making that hippie speech. I don’t even remember why she’s there or why the topic of banned books comes up, but I always remember that she was against it.

  17. Matthew Watkins says:

    I used the frequently banned books list as a reading list. I won’t consider my life complete while I haven’t read them. Ok, maybe not that drastic, but I always look at the list and pick one up during banned books week. Looks like the book banners are really getting the results they wanted, huh?

  18. Robin Weeks says:

    My 9-year-old picked up my copy of Mr. Monster and asked if he could read it when I was done. Sadly, I had to ban him from reading it… for now. (Other than the obvious reasons, he gets nightmares from the monsters in Zathura.)

    Loved the book, by the way. Can’t wait for the next one!

  19. Colin Santos says:

    Dan, I know your work from Writing Excuses, which I love.
    I’m from Utah county and I remember having to get permission from my parents to borrow Grendel from the library, thinking I was pretty avant-garde. I was let down after I read it thinking, “That’s it? Why was this even banned?”

    I have been wondering lately about the Sleeping Beauty effect, and if they got rid of all the spinning wheels, how did they have such nicely woven clothing?

    Final thought: the full justification on your blog posts gives them rivers rill bad. CS

  20. Spudd86 says:

    What I find most bizarre about the whole banned books situation is how many of the frequently banned books were required reading for me in high school…

    I had to read To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lord of the Flies… actually I think the only thing I had to read in grade 10 that ISN’T on the list of frequently banned books was Shakespeare… wait scratch that it was Twelfth Night, I’m pretty sure that’s been banned, what with the cross-dressing and such…

    Actually what’s depressing is the frequency with which things are banned like To Kill a Mockingbird, for being the exact opposite of what they are. An anti-racism book being banned because it depicts racist characters is just so utterly stupid…

    Some of the stuff that ends up on those lists just makes me wonder, are these people spending all their time just looking for things to be offended about? (The answer is, yes some of them clearly are because they’re reading stuff into books that just isn’t in them, or in other cases we have to conclude they are either willfully missing the point or just plain too stupid to understand, that or they didn’t actually read the book)

  21. Spudd86 says:

    Actually the more you read about which stuff gets requests for it to be banned the stronger the image of some puritanical busybody, out actively searching for offense, becomes.

    Seriously Captain Underpants made the 2005 top 10. (and 2004) It’s a silly children’s book… Goosebumps, really?

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