Because You Can: Banned Books Week

Photo by Anna Tschetter via Said to be made
with pages from Fahrenheit 451. Nice!

Banned Books Week, how I love to hate you. I hate that you have to exist, that anyone tries to ban books. But I love your spirit, your refusal to lie down for the small-mindedness of those who want to control the thoughts and morality of other people.
This mother from Knoxville, Tennessee is not satisfied with her child being assigned an alternate book after she protested the text assigned by the school. No, she thinks it is her place to make that decision for everybody’s children, not just her own, and wants the objectionable book (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot) banned from all schools in her county.
I’d never heard of the book before reading the article, but you’d better believe it’s on my TBR list now. That’s what happens when you make a big squawk about something and try to disallow it; you draw people’s attention, make them wonder what the fuss is about. There has always been an exotic allure to the taboo. Now I want to see it for myself, just because you tried to tell me I shouldn’t. More than that, though, I get my back up at anyone trying to impose their standards on me when it’s not only my right, but my responsibility, to establish my own standards. That’s part of being a grown-up.

And don’t kid yourself for a minute: When kids know a book has been removed from their school’s shelves, you’re driving them straight to it. It works on adults, too. I still remember the outcry when the movie The Last Temptation of Christ was released. The next time I was in a bookstore, I snapped the book right up. Come to think of it, I still haven’t read it. It’s still in one of my TBR piles, somewhere. But all the hue and cry racked up another sale. I’ll read it someday.

We didn’t have a lot of frills when I was growing up, but one thing my mother would almost never say no to, and particularly if we were in a used bookshop or a thrift store, was books. As many as I wanted, whatever I wanted. There was always enough gas in the car if I wanted to go to the library, the library was one place I had permission to go even if I was grounded, and I’ve been the contented, book-sated owner of a library card since I was 10. She frowned at a title or two I picked out (a few by Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins and Jackie Collins come to mind), but she never censored my reading. Maybe she knew it would be about as effective as disallowing drinking turned out to be later, but I doubt it. I think she was wise enough to know that new ideas and concepts make you think, make you examine the world around you and make you examine yourself, that they help you become the person you are supposed to be. She trusted me to use my intellect to reach good and ethical conclusions about the various ideas I was coming across. My mother is not only smart, but wise.

I had the same freedom at my grandmother’s house, which overflowed with books, literally. They filled the house and spilled over to shelves and boxes in the garage. I was given free rein, never told I couldn’t read any of them, from various histories of the world to philosophy to religion, to classics such as Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe, to simpler pleasures like Anne of Green Gables and A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia tales, and endless volumes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I read what I wanted to read. If I had questions, they were answered. We talked about what we read. And I learned; oh, how I learned. What may be the most valuable thing I learned is how to learn.
One justification often used for removing books from junior high and high school students’ reading lists or school libraries is that “these kids are too young to read about these things”. “These things” include sex, alcohol and drugs, violence, abuse, racism and other bigotry, mental illness, suicide, bullying, LGBTQ issues, death, and other things that, trust me, the kids are already aware of because they’re already struggling with them. “These things” are right smack in their lives already. Removing a book from the library won’t make the issue disappear. It boggles my mind that any parent would not want their children to have the benefit of the wisdom and experience of others, the solace of knowing these are not unique problems, that they are not alone, that there are solutions. It boggles my mind that parents aren’t aware that much worse than you’ll find in Looking for Alaska or The Hunger Games is splashed across social media such as Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook and Imgur and Snapchat, along with the rest of the virtually limitless Interwebs.  It boggles my mind that parents don’t want their kids’ minds opened enough to have compassion for others in their lives. It boggles my mind that parents don’t want their kids thinking for themselves.

I like to think that, ultimately, the attempts of those who would censor literature will always move us to fight back, that we will always strain and struggle against it, slam it down, that we will always hunger for thoughts and words, to read them and to write them, and will always find ways around censorship as surely as a bookworm kid will read by flashlight under the covers long after bedtime on a school night.

Honor freedom of expression during Banned Books Week, September 27 – October 3. There are so many banned books to choose from! Here is the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, and here is their list of most frequently challenged books by decade. Some of the reasons for challenging and banning books are ludicrous; this article lists several that will get your eyes rolling. I mean, seriously, Charlotte’s Web?
Seattle Central Library’s Banned Books display. I brought home two:
Peyton Place and The Bluest Eye.

Read a banned book this week to celebrate being able to read what you want to.

Read a banned book to celebrate that you can write what you want to. Remember that you can also paint what you want to, sing what you want to, dream what you want to. I still happily remember reading about the recording artist who, when told people wanted to burn his/her latest record, responded, “Well, they gotta buy it to burn it.” (I can’t remember who it was but I want to say it was Blondie. If anybody knows, please clue me in. It was a long time ago, back when vinyl was standard issue and not hipster.)
Read a banned book to savor a new idea, the pleasure of tasting it and considering it and pondering it and turning it over to look at all sides of it, and then deciding how it fits in your life.
Read a banned book to remind yourself how stagnant the world would be if we couldn’t share our ideas with others, or have our eyes opened or our hearts broken by the ideas others share with us.
Read a banned book to celebrate the love and joy and sorrow and yearning and torment that pour forth whenever a writer or poet sets words to paper.
Read a banned book because some of the best stuff out there has been on one or many banned lists at some time. Classic literature that has changed how we read and write and move through the world, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Rings and The Grapes of Wrath and Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Sun Also Rises, that were challenged simply because a handful of pinched and narrow minds thought they had the right to tell everybody else how to think, or didn’t want anyone challenging the status quo.
Read a banned book to celebrate that we remain free from the Thought Police (brought to you by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four — another banned book).
Read a banned book because every time someone reads one, closed and controlling minds lose and the exquisite freedom of artistic expression wins.
Read a banned book because you can.

Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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