Friday, September 29, 2017

Is banning books still a thing?

Every year the American Library Associate designates the last week in September as Banned Books Week. It is a week to celebrate the freedom to read and to acknowledge that there are still people who would abridge that freedom. As explained on the ALA website, "Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers — in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular."

Not infrequently, today's "unorthodox or unpopular" ideas become tomorrow's norm and I suppose that is what the would-be book banners are so afraid of, but, the truth is, it is impossible to stamp out ideas, especially in a relatively free society such as ours and in this day of unfettered access to social media. Trying to ban ideas is like playing whack-a-mole; you stamp it out here and it pops up in a dozen other places.

These days, most of the books that the ALA reports as being challenged are books for children and young adults, as you can see if you visit the site that lists the ten most challenged books for 2016. If you look at the reasons that these books were challenged, you'll find that three of the challenges were because of LGBT characters or content; two were due to having transgender children as characters; three were due to what the complainers saw as the sexually explicit nature of the content; one was due to criminal sexual allegations against the author (Bill Cosby); and one was due to language that the complainers found offensive.

I'm sensing a theme here. There were, for example, zero challenges (at least in the top ten) of books for violent themes. I guess there were no violence-themed books published in the country last year or at least parents aren't worried about their children being exposed to violence. Nope, it's all sex, sex, sex!

Of course, historically, books could actually be banned and their sale forbidden. Thankfully, that doesn't really happen today, but a list of the ten most commonly banned or challenged books for the past is eye-opening indeed:

  1. 1984 by George Orwell - Reasons: pro-communism ideas, sexuality.
  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - Reason: racism.
  3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - Reasons: offensive language, unsuited for certain age groups.
  4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker - Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for certain age groups.
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Reasons: reference to drugs, sexuality, and profanity.
  6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou - Reason: sexually explicit.
  7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding - Reasons: profanity, sexuality, racial slurs, and excessive violence.
  8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck - Reasons: offensive language, racism, violence.
  9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey - Reasons: profanity, unsavory theme, sexuality, and racism.
  10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - Reasons: offensive language, racism.  
I am proud to say that I have read eight of these "unsuitable books"; somehow I missed The Catcher in the Rye and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but I'll get to them one of these days. I don't think I've been damaged by reading any of them, although I will admit that some unsettling scenes from Lord of the Flies are burned into my consciousness forever. 

What is most puzzling to me about the reasons for complaints about these books, many of which are considered classics, is the charges of racism against The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. Surely, shining a light on racism is not the same thing as advocating racism.

But the same could be said of any of the reasons that people give for wanting to ban books. Disseminating and discussing ideas is not the same thing as advocating them.

"Words Have Power" as my blogger friend, Alana, pointed out in her eloquent post earlier this week and those with closed minds fear that power.

4 comments:

  1. Banning books is still a thing in countries around the world, though they tend to lean more towards religious and political reasons rather than because of the explicit depictions of sex scenes. In Communist countries, Animal Farm was banned. Works by political dissidents and emigres were banned as well, all in the name of protecting population from the noxious effects of Capitalism on the minds on the working class. Let me emphasize that whatever those regimes did was always to protect the working class (from having independent thought, from traveling abroad, from having a dignified life, etc), for the ruling class never had any reason to be protected from those things. Quite the contrary!

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    1. True enough. In too many countries, banning books is still a "thing". Even in those countries though, content is often accessible through the internet. Stopping the flow of ideas in today's world is not easy.

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  2. Excellent post Dorothy. I went exploring and now know more about the ALA, the reasons behind Banned Books Week and the work of the Office For Intellectual Freedom (I am now following that office on Twitter.) Now I am thinking about my own challenge: to read the top 10 most challenged books each year. One of the things that cannot be killed is ideas; suppressed yes, killed never. Of course it is all a double-edged sword but then so is life if you think about it.

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    1. That's a wonderful and worthy challenge that you've accepted. I look forward to reading your thoughts on those books.

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