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Tag Archives: banned books

It’s 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 Books Week celebrates the freedom to read. You see, some people in the world are so terrified of knowledge that they actively seek to hide information from other people. In some unfortunate cases, this results in people attempting to remove a book from public access. In response to this behavior, the American Library Association started Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of free and open access to information.

I’m not going to mince words. I fucking hate people who push for the banning of books. It is the one thing that gets me upset more than anything else. It is an act of supreme ignorance to ban a book. No one should be able to tell someone else that they can’t read something. Period. In fact, I’m rather stubborn about it. If you tell me that I shouldn’t read something, I’ll ask you why. If you tell me I CAN’T read something, I’m going to find a way to read it.

So, why do people ban books? Most challenges to books occur in schools. This frequently has to do with a book that a class has been assigned to read having some content in it that a parent or guardian of one of the readers finds offensive. Case in point: Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret is a frequently challenged title. This is usually more because it includes a description of a girl having her first period than because it is about said girl’s questioning of the existence of a deity. Yeah, that’s right, kids. Talking about the changes that EVERY HUMAN BEING goes through are apparently reason enough to stop someone from reading a book. HOW DARE YOU CHILDREN ATTEMPT TO LEARN WHAT YOUR BODY IS DOING!

But yeah, “sexually explicit” and “unsuited to age group” are the two biggest reasons cited when someone challenges a book’s presence in a library. That’s because both of these terms are open to a very loose interpretation. If a parent feels that their precious little snowflake of a child isn’t ready to read about something that everyone else in their class at school has been talking about, then BAN THAT BOOK. Guess what, folks? Mitch Hedberg said it best. “Every book is a children’s book if the kid can read!” Look, if you’re concerned about what your kid might learn from a book, talk to your kid about the topic. It’s called parenting. The librarians aren’t there to do it for you. They’re there to provide information to their patrons, not to keep them from accessing it.

Why should I care? Orwell left us this gem in 1984. The oppressive regime in control of England in the book uses several slogans, including  WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. It’s quite telling, and a bit terrifying, that 1984 has itself been challenged. We’re living in a world where our ability to access information is greater than ever. Thanks to the internet, we have an unbelievable amount of data that we can use every day, WHENEVER WE WANT. However, there are people who want to limit this sort of access to those things that they feel are appropriate for us to see. Sound familiar? People who want to ban books are proponents of ignorance. Fight them. Peacefully.

What can I do to help? Learn your library’s policy on reacting to book challenges. If someone says that they want to complain about a book, ask them if they’ve read it (Yes, this is a legitimate issue—most of the people I’ve met who complained to me about Harry Potter, for example, had NEVER ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK). Many complaints are based purely on hearsay. I like to think of this as the “Cycle of Stupidity.” Some day I’ll draw you a nifty illustration as an example of the cycle. For now, let it be known that only you have the power to stop stupid people. Fight the spread of ignorance. Embrace literacy. Read a banned book. Judy Blume has a great strategy for getting a kid to read. “The best thing to do is leave the books around the house and from time to time say, ‘I really don’t think you’re ready for that book.'”

Other people can stand where they like on the issue of reading freedom, but me? I’m with the banned.

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

J.K. Rowling‘s first post-Harry Potter novel is coming soon. The Casual Vacancy is the writing superstar’s newest work of fiction, and is apparently a standalone work rather than the start of a new series. The literary world is buzzing with rumors about the book and how it might stack up against Rowling’s previous work. I can’t wait, though I find it hard to knowingly invite comparisons between what quickly became one of the best-selling (and most frequently challenged) books of all time and something that would seem to be in a completely different genre. I’m doing my very best to avoid any spoilers, because I want to take on The Casual Vacancy with as open an outlook as possible.

People are complaining that it’s too simple, too 70s, too garish. I like it.

To add to the excitement (at least for me), the book is releasing days before the start of Banned Books Week 2012. Considering the fuss that Rowling’s earlier works caused in the community of morons who decide that they have to determine what other people read, I can’t wait to see the reactions to this new novel. To sum up, I’m thrilled for next week, even though I’m probably going to have to wait for a library copy to arrive (it’s on hold for me). A fan on goodreads said it best, and so I’ll paraphrase. The topic of the book makes no difference. Rowling’s words are always magical.

For those of you who don’t know, I work in a public library. Those of you who do know me should be aware that I have taken a strong stance against censorship in all forms, especially in the last few years, but it started long ago, back when I first discovered Banned Books Week. Even as a young child, I was a voracious reader, having completed my own trips through The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings by the time I started second grade. I wanted to read everything that I could get my hands on, and I couldn’t understand why it was that some people would try to keep other people from reading anything.

The process of banning books is a lengthy one. Books are challenged all the time, by parents and religious groups and teachers. Librarians don’t sift through the books they’re acquiring to determine whether or not they should go on the shelves. Librarians (and libraries) promote the ability of the patron to access any information the patron may seek, regardless of personal opinion. Personal opinion should never EVER come into play when determining what works should be available to the public. “When filling their shelves, librarians do not judge the content of books on whether it would be suitable for all audiences. As public institutions, libraries may not discriminate on disseminating information on the basis of age, sex or race, which means that people can check out whatever materials they choose. That said, libraries request that parents and guardians of minors monitor their selections.” -Cristen Conger, How Stuff Works

People come up with all manner of excuses for why they want to ban certain books. This one has violence in it. That one has sex in it. There’s offensive language here. There’s racial insensitivity there. In many cases from my personal experience, however, the people who are attempting to ban a book have not read it for themselves. They have merely taken negative hype surrounding a book and made their opinion solely based on the opinions of others. Yay, sheeple!

Earlier this week, I was at work when a library patron came in, returning a book on playaway that he claimed was “pornography” and demanding that we start the ball rolling to get the book banned from our library. The title in question? Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis. Ever read anything by Warren Ellis? This is the guy who created Transmetropolitan, the story of journalist Spider Jersualem, whose character is heavily inspired by the real life of Hunter S. Thompson and who uses a bowel disruptor gun as his weapon of choice. Crooked Little Vein is unabashedly intense. Reading the blurb on the case could have told him that. Thirty seconds on the internet could have told this patron that.

From wikipedia: “Michael McGill, a burned-out private eye is hired by a corrupt White House Chief of Staff to find a second “secret” United States Constitution, which had been lost in a whorehouse by Richard Nixon. What follows is a scavenger hunt across America, exposing its seedier side along the way. McGill is joined by surreal college student side-kick, Trix, who is writing a thesis on sexual fetishes. McGill has to deal with strange events sometimes unrelated to his adventures – he describes himself as a ‘shit-magnet’, with weird phenomena following him wherever he goes…About.com reviewer Jonathan Lasser called Crooked Little Vein “an ace put-up job” and that it was “evidence that freedom is more valuable than repression”. Whitney Pastorek, reviewing for Entertainment Weekly takes pains to note that the work “is not for the faint of heart”, and that Ellis has “got a bright future outside of the picture books”. 

I don’t even know that this patron finished the book. My honest guess? He got too upset because something in the book disagreed with his narrow world view and shut it off. Ignorance is not bliss, people. Ignorance is ignorance, plain and simple. We have to move to the point of object permanence. Hell, two-year-olds understand that covering her eyes doesn’t make mommy disappear. We’ve got way too many heads and not enough sand for this crap to work. Acknowledge that there might be something out there that you don’t agree with, and that it’s not going to go away.

I’m tired of people blaming writers for things that they don’t like. I’m tired of people taking offense at libraries for providing freedom of access to material. Book banning and challenging is a form of oppression of the people. We need to open our eyes, and face the future with courage. Stop book banning. Stop ignorance. Embrace knowledge. Visit your local library and tell them how much you appreciate what they do for you. I’m going to go read Warren Ellis.