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