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This week marks the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, a week-long celebration of the right to read.

Throughout history, books have faced challenges and bans from people around the world. These challenges come from groups and individuals who have taken it upon themselves to determine what is “appropriate” for others to be reading based on tired dogma and personal opinion. In the words of Granville Hicks, “[a] censor is a man who knows more than he thinks you ought to.”

Some of the greatest pieces of literature ever written have been banned or challenged in schools, churches, and public libraries for various reasons. The Great Gatsby, for example (one of my favorite books), was challenged in 1987 by Charleston, South Carolina’s Baptist College because of “language and sexual references in the book.” Now I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that this particular phrase could have been used to challenge the presence of the Holy Bible, considering the Old Testament features several chapters which single-handedly contain more explicit sexual references than anything written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. J.D. Salinger’s classic tale of teen rebellion, Catcher in the Rye, was banned for being “a filthy, filthy book.” That’s a bit of a vague excuse if you ask me, and makes me wonder if the people behind that challenge had actually read the entire book, as, in an amusing twist, the narrator believes a “catcher in the rye” to be one who safeguards the innocence of children. As recently as 2009 To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged for use of the word “nigger” among other language that was dubbed as inappropriate. The list goes on and on, and increases in absurdity. The works of Tolkien, a staunch Catholic, burned in New Mexico in 2001 as “satanic.” Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying “[b]anned at Central High School in Louisville, KY (1994) temporarily because the book uses profanity and questions the existence of God.”

More recent works are facing challenges and bans as well. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Captain Underpants have all been threatened with removal from library shelves. I’ve personally encountered people willing to ban materials on nothing more than hearsay. My mother, herself a Catholic, has encountered this at the bookstore she owns and operates.
Customer sees Harry Potter on the shelf: “I can’t believe you have that book in your store! It’s about devil worship and magic and terrible things!”
Mum: “Have you actually read the books?”
Customer: “Well, no, but I heard that they were bad.”
Mum: “Well, if you actually took the time to read the book, you’d learn that they’re about a little boy who overcomes terrible adversity and still manages to become a good person despite facing an evil enemy bent on the destruction of the world, and that there’s nothing harmful about the books.”
Customer: “Oh.”
It’s enough to drive a person insane. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” -attributed to Stephen Hawking

My favorite response to any of these challenges is taken from Oscar Wilde, a man who knew quite a bit about dealing with people who were upset by things that he wrote and did. “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” Humans have an unfortunate history of trying to hide our mistakes and our failures, from the child who attempts to disguise the fact that he wet the bed to avoid the anger of a parent to the government that covers up evidence that it had authorized criminal acts against its own people. It’s human nature, I suppose, but it shouldn’t stop us from learning from our own mistakes. If we hide away all of the bad things that people have done in the past, we can’t do that. You know what they say about learning from the past, and those who are unable to do so.

We need to get over this. If I may be rather earnest, it’s bullshit. Books are here, and they’re being read. If you stop someone from getting a copy at their local library, that might slow them down for a while, but the information, the ideas, are still out in the world. We can’t stop people from experiencing life. Sex and profanity and hate and love and violence are going to be there, whether someone read about it in a book or not. We’ve screwed things up before. Let’s not do that again. 

It’s Banned Books Week. I’m celebrating by reading as many banned or challenged titles as I can. I work in a public library and a bookstore, and I’m providing the people with free ideas and ideas of freedom. “[a]nd ideas are bulletproof.” -V (This V, not that V

One Comment

  1. Any idiot who makes a big public fuss about banning a book obviously doesn’t live in this universe with kids. What’s the first thing any kid does when you tell them not to do something? Exactly what you told them not to do. By all means, ban all the books you want, dumbasses, please, give us all one more reason to read something awesome: we know that by doing it we’re pissing you off. In all seriousness, if you don’t like it, easy solution: don’t read it. Leave the rest of us to make our own decisions about what we think is immoral or whatever your complaint is. We didn’t ask your opinion, and we sure as hell didn’t give you any measure of permission to police our lives or try to make our decisions for us.


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  1. […] almost the end of September, and another favorite time of year is here. This year, Banned Books Week runs from the 22nd to the 28th. For you uninitiated out there, Banned […]

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