Friday, October 8, 2010

My Banned Books Week Spiel

A couple of weeks ago libraries, bookstores, and book people around the country celebrated Banned Books Week, an event and organizing concept that draws attention to school districts and public libraries making certain books unavailable to their communities, while celebrating the contribution to our culture made by those books. It is supposed to be a celebration of the right to information and a reminder of the importance of intellectual freedom and in a way it is.

But. There was a time when an ignorant parent, teacher, school board member, city councilor, or other figure with municipal power could ensure with a decent level of confidence that no members of his/her/their community would be damaged by exposure to the offending book. However, a city council can't stop a bookstore from carrying the book and they certainly can't stop someone from ordering the book online. One might argue that it is a bit presumptuous to assume everyone can purchase a banned book if their library doesn't have it, and it is true there are families who can't make rent let alone buy books, but the real problem in that case is not that the book is banned, but that there are families who cannot afford to buy the occasional book. That's another essay over in the politics section. Regardless, it's not as easy as it once was to restrict access to information. And there's no easier way to make a teenager want to read a book than to ban it. Hmm. Maybe I should ban Ulysses.

Oh wait, somebody already has. Just like somebody has banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, Beloved, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Awakening, A Separate Peace... In fact, pretty much every influential important book has been banned or challenged (and let's not get into that strange little phrase “or challenged” that pops up in Banned Books Week material) by someone somewhere who heard something about the book and then flew off the handle before actually reading the book or bothering to consider the context of the story.

I think, more than anything, this shows that some people can be offended by anything and sometimes those very same easily offended people are self-righteous sanctimonious pricks who think they know what other people's children should not be allowed to read. If there were only a way to divert their attention to the assault on our psyches that is contemporary TV advertising, but that's another essay.

Furthermore, no matter how many American classics they ban, they can't ban them all. Maybe they get Slaughterhouse-five, but not Cat's Cradle. They'll get Beloved but miss Sula. And there's a ton of sophisticated YA dealing directly with the challenges of growing up in modern America. A town might get Speak out of their library or curriculum but their kids will find other books. In fact, book banners are fighting a losing battle. Curious children have always and will always be able to find books that speak to their questions about the world and experiences with the world, whether those books conform to some narrow minded adult's conception of “appropriate literature” or not.

Furthermore, book banners have taken a fairly rational idea, extended it to hyperbolic proportions and attached hysterical consequences to it. That rational idea: children do not have the critical apparatus to fully understand some books. For example, I'm not a fan of teaching Moby-Dick in high school because I think most students don't end up with the critical sophistication necessary to effectively engage with the work, but I don't assume students who read Moby-Dick before they're ready are going to start throwing harpoons at obese nurses, I assume they're going to be bored to death and have a terrible reading experience with an absolutely amazing work. Similarly, the millions of teen and pre-teen girls reading the Twilight series bothers me, not because the main female “character” (I almost pulled a muscle throwing the air quotes around that one) is a self-less receptacle for male desire, but because I'm not sure they've acquired the critical apparatus to analyze the value of such a character (And thanks to Suzanne Collins for bringing us Katniss when she did.). That said, I don't believe that every girl is going to turn into Bella if she reads Twilight or that even if girls mimic some of Bella's traits, they will maintain those traits for the rest of their lives. Raise your hand if you are the exact same person you were in middle school. Furthermore, I'm not even sure it's always a bad thing to read books you're not ready for, but that's another essay.

In an odd way there is something affirmative about book banners. Ultimately, the source of all of their ridiculous fear is the assumption that books are powerful. When they ban a book they say that book is capable changing how children think and what they do. And they're right. And I think that's awesome. One does not usually fear the irrelevant. In their own narrow-minded, short-sighted self-righteous profoundly-prickish way, they are telling us that books are doing exactly what books are supposed to do; changing the minds and lives of the people who read them.

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