Wednesday, October 03, 2012
Banned Books Week
I grew up with a father whose feelings on censorship boiled down to one sentence. "If someone tries to ban a book or tells me I am not allowed to read it I immediately go buy a copy and read it." In my own childhood I remember the debate about a book of Uncle Remus stories he bought for me as a young child. My mother banned it from her house because of the racial overtones and the colloquial speech she thought was a terrible grammatical example. I had to keep it at my father's house. I can remember many weeks enjoying sitting with him while he read to me of the Tar Baby, the briar patch, and the antics and Brer Rabbit and his cohorts. It introduced me to the wonder that is folklore and how people from different backgrounds may have similar themes in their stories but expressed differently. Plus there are some precious memories of reading with my dad.
It's already half way through the week but I'd like to draw attention to it anyway. It's dedicated to celebrating the freedom to read by drawing attention to those books that have faced documented challenges to remove them from library shelves or classrooms. There are several variations of lists of banned books.
The most challenged books of 2011
The most challenged books of the decade 2000-2009
The most challenged classics
As I look over the books on the list a certain themes jump out at me. I see an awful lot of books with stories involving characters with messy lives. Guess what. Life is messy. Even if you go looking for a fairy tale ending in your reading the characters face some pretty awful situations. It's part of what makes that happy ending so gratifying. If it's a book without a particularly happy ending it may just be making some important social commentary. How many people pick up a book to read with a story that goes like this, "Once upon a time there was a perfectly happy person with not a care in the world. Her life was completely joyous and fulfilling in every way and she never had any hard times. She met the perfect man. They had 2 perfect children. When they reached the ripe old age of 105 they died in each other's arms in their sleep." Really? Would that sell? There's no tension. Tension is what makes a story. Sometimes that tension is ugly. Think of our own lives. The hard times have been ugly. Sometimes we have responded well and other times we have responded shamefully....because we are human. Even Superman has kryptonite. When you read a novel or even a memoir I'm willing to bet you want to read about human beings who face real life situations, not who lived charmed lives.
I also see books that may espouse viewpoints that differ from the majority whether it's a political, religious, or cultural value. I tend to think it's good to at least occasionally read opinions that challenge our own. It stretches us to consider why we hold the belief we do. Self-examination is a good thing. If we are intellectually honest we can handle differing opinions, learn from them, and either have a stronger point from which to defend our views or...gasp...we may change our opinion in light of new information we never considered before.
Other books simply reflect the tines in which they were written or in which the story takes place. It's dishonest to pretend that racism, sexism, and other forms hatred don't exist and haven't been expressed in ugly terms in various times and places. If a story is set in those places or times it's appropriate to reflect it with accuracy. Why are certain prominent Holocaust survivors so vocal about remembering what happened? So they can wallow in bitterness? No, so those who would deny such atrocities occurred would be countered with first person accounts and the world would not forget so we may learn and not repeat that horrific chapter of history.
Does all this mean you have to love all the books on the list? No. I have by no means read all of them. I have read a great many. Some have become cherished to me. Others I really didn't enjoy at all. But I chose to read them and I formed my own opinion of them. I did not take the opinion of other people who were trying to decide whether or not I should have access to them at all. I was able to make that choice because I had access to the books either through a public or school library. I did not have to risk abuse or arrest because I chose to read books banned and removed from libraries and stores by some righteous reading brigade. You think that doesn't happen in the world? Go find a copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran.
I'd also suggest you find a book on one of the lists that you have never read before and settle in with a copy of it. Celebrate that you have the freedom to do so.