Haruki Murakami said, “If you only read the books everyone else is reading you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” This quote speaks eloquently to Banned Book Week. Some people only want us to think what they are thinking. They want only socially approved ideas making it on to the printed page in the hopes, I think, of producing a homogenous world where nothing threatens what they think the status quo should be. Banned Books Week stands firm against the tyranny of that mindset.
Banned Books Week began in 1982 after an increase in requests to libraries, bookstores and schools to pull certain books off the shelves. Lest you think this is a problem from the past check out this article. Since then, Banned Books Week has been an annual celebration of the freedom to read, sponsored/encouraged by schools, libraries, and bookstores determined to see our freedom of speech protected. More than 11,000 books have been challenged in the thirty years since the inauguration of Banned Books Week and that number grows every year. Banned books are an ongoing war in the censorship battle.
The ACLU says “Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others.” They are quick to note that private pressure groups “can become dangerous in the extreme”.
It should be noted – and really, I shouldn’t have to mention – that there is a huge difference between warning someone to avoid a book that is poorly written and unenjoyable and trying to prevent people from reading/selling/endorsing a book with ideas/issues you find problematic. Here is how the American Library Association defines challenged and banned books: A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.
Books come under target by all sorts, from parents trying to protect their kids’ delicate minds to the politically correct. Mostly the book banning, while possibly done with good intentions, seems to be about infantilizing the reader. It seems to say that while the banner understands the issues they are much smarter and better equipped to deal with it than the rest of us. Therefore, the book should be banned before it somehow damages those of us not smart enough to handle it. To that I say phooey!
I’ve been reading banned books before there was ever an official list of them. Huckleberry Finn (race issues, racial slurs, slurs against the poor) was probably my first. I have to chuckle when I see books like this or To Kill a Mockingbird on the list as a result of race issues because it is clear the banners either didn’t read the book or didn’t understand the book. Yes, there is racist language but neither book advocates the racism. Rather, they call attention to the injustice of a society which allowed that language and attitude to flourish in the first place.
A lot of the books on the list are banned because they deal with difficult subjects. One such novel is The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. This is the story of Jerry Renault, who refuses to participate in a school fundraiser and thus causes a mountain of problems which end in violence. Protesters have asked to have it banned because it contains foul language, physical conflict and sexual situations, something which children over the age of 12 are never confronted with in real life.
This is one of the things that truly bothers me about many of the books being banned. They are banned for things that happen in real life. Sending your child to school and then being concerned they will pick up curse words from a book is like throwing them in a pool and being worried they’ll get their clothes wet. They are most likely saturated in curse words.
The sexual situations in the book seem entirely age appropriate to me. The issue of the boy who feels guilty for looking at naked women in a magazine and the one who feels excited about touching a girl’s fully clothed breast are also something that teens and even pre-teens deal with. Sexual desire is an urge nicely entrenched in our DNA. Long before this novel was published men and boys had a desire to see naked girls and touch women’s private parts. This book taught them nothing except that it was natural to feel both excited and embarrassed by the sensations.
But personally I think the complaints about the language and sexual situations are smoke screens. Kids know about these things long before they pick up these books. I think what is at issue is that many banned books are about outliers. People who either challenge authority, as Jerry in The Chocolate War or Patty in Summer of My German Soldier did, or folks who like Huck Finn make us feel uncomfortable because they remind us that not everyone gets to (or chooses to) live in a fancy house with a loving family.
Many of these books also challenge the idea of safe places. Unless you live under a rock you know that the bullying which takes place in our school systems has come under increasing scrutiny in the last several decades. Books like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or The Chocolate War bring that issue to the forefront. They also show that the bullies aren’t only children. Snape and Umbridge often made Harry’s life as uncomfortable as students like Malfoy did. Brother Leon is behind many of Jerry’s problems. These books bring the issue of bad/nasty teachers into full, glorious focus. That’s a scary premise for many adults who insist that “telling a grown up” will solve all of a child’s problems.
But mostly these books challenge us to think. Do parents always have our best interest at heart? Do teachers? Is there anywhere that is truly, perfectly safe? And should we conform at any cost?
In honor of this special week we have one copy of The Chocolate War to be given away. Entering is easy. All you need to do is comment to this post by 11:59 pm on Wednesday, September 30.
A few caveats apply: Due to high postage costs, this giveaway is only open to residents of the U.S. and Canada. The winner will be chosen at random and notified by email on Friday morning October 2. So, if you enter, please remember to check your email on Friday morning.
Here’s a list of a few banned books. How many have you read? Do you have any thoughts on book banning?
In closing, I leave you with a few words of wisdom from The Chocolate War:
They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. Don’t disturb the universe, no matter what the posters say.