As some of you may know, Banned Books Week begins tomorrow. And, no, it’s not a seven-day period where enraged fundamentalists and overly protective parents join together to see who can burn the most Harold Robbins’ and Harry Potter novels.
Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment, according to the American Library Association.
It “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States,” according to the organization.
Consider some of the books that were banned, challenged, restricted or removed between May 2010 and May 2011:
- Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl – This longtime staple of high school English classes was challenged by a parent in the Culpeper County, Va., public schools in 2010. The parent requested that her daughter not be required to read the book aloud. Initially, it was reported that officials decided to stop assigning a version of Anne Frank’s diary. The director of instruction announced the edition published on the 50th anniversary of Frank’s death in a Nazi concentration camp will not be used in the future despite the fact the school system did not follow its own policy for handling complaints. The superintendent said, however, that the book will remain a part of English classes, although it may be taught at a different grade level. (Did no one see the irony in trying to ban a book written by a girl who was killed by a regime that specialized in banning books?)
- The Awakening – This late-19th century classic by Kate Chopin was challenged at the Oconee County, Ga., Library earlier this year because a patron was upset by the book’s cover, which shows a painting of a woman’s bare chest.
- Brave New World – Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel upset parents on both coasts over the past year. It was challenged at a high school in Glen Burnie, Md., by a group of parents who circulated a petition to have the book removed from use by county schools over concerns about explicit sexual content. In Seattle, a parent complained that the book has a “high volume of racially offensive derogatory language and misinformation on Native Americans. In addition to the inaccurate imagery, and stereotype views, the text lacks literary value which is relevant to today’s contemporary multicultural society.”
- Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut’s work was challenged in schools in Republic, Mo., last year because of its supposed “soft-pornography” and that it “glorifies drinking, cursing and premarital sex.”
The above are just a handful of the books that were challenged within the past year or so. Most aren’t nearly so well known as the above, but that doesn’t mean the fact that there’s a significant minority of the population that sees no problem with restricting access to literature isn’t a trend to be watched with a wary eye.
And some targets are just downright ridiculous.
Now, is every book appropriate for every student? Of course not. But rather than trying to enact blanket bans, whereby no one can access the work in question, why doesn’t the parent simply keep closer tabs on what their child is reading?
Intellectual freedom – the right to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular – is the linchpin of a free and open society.
Further, and I speak from personal experience, about the only thing that happens when parents or library patrons try to stiff arm school officials or librarians into removing a book from the shelves because of “questionable content” is to pique the interest of teens regarding the book in question.
As someone who sought out and read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Madame Bovary for more than, shall we say, their literary qualities, I was just a bit disappointed, and somewhat perplexed, by what prior generations saw as racy.
Yet, over time, I came to recognize the inherent literary value of both works, particularly Flaubert’s, regardless of whatever prurient value, or lack thereof, they may have contained. Had those books been unavailable to me because someone somewhere didn’t think they were appropriate, I would have missed out on a pair of great reads.
Ultimately, banning books sets a dangerous precedent because it allows the tastes of a single individual or a group of individuals to dictate the literary and information choices for an entire community. And that runs directly counter to the idea of intellectual freedom.