Friday, October 2, 2009

Once again it is banned Books Week in the U.S.

For the 27th year, the American Library Association, in conjunction with the American Booksellers Association and others is sponsoring Banned Book Week activities and observances during the week of September 27 to October 3. The point to this week is to increase awareness of way too many attempts to either restrict the availability of books in libraries (or their inclusion in school curricula) or force their permanent removal from the shelves.

Many of these attempts are started by parents who are concerned about what reading materials their children have access to. On this point, the parents should not be criticized because part of successful parenting is instilling in the next generation the healthy values seemingly in short supply these days.

Activist parents, however, need to be faulted for their determination to impose their views on all of society. To me, this is where they shift from being good parents teaching healthy values and choices to their children to being bad parents in two ways. First, they are teaching their kids that it is ok to force their opinions down other people’s throats in order to bend society to their will. Instead of this, they should be using these opportunities to teach their kids how to engage in rational discourse with others. Instead of teaching civility, they are teaching the incivility we have too much of in society.

Second, instead of wasting time creating chaos with their attempts at restricting or banning books they don’t like, they could be investing the time appropriately by teaching their children how to recognize reading materials that are appropriate, and how to choose healthy, positive materials. Virtually all children are, by nature, inquisitive about the world around them. That is, after all, how they learn. So part of the role of parents is to shape this inquisitiveness while providing some direction to it.

In perusing the lists of books that have been challenged in past years, two impressions stand out to me. First, there are common themes used to justify banning/restricting activities. Invariably, the reasons given revolve around questionable language, inappropriate sexual actions or references, “anti-Christian” messages, or, increasingly, references to homosexuality, the homosexual lifestyle, or the occult. This leaves me wondering: just what kind of cocoon are parents trying to keep their children in?

Second, book challengers have not actually read the books they oppose. Rather, they have skimmed the books, looking for reasons to be offended by its text. This becomes obvious by the number of cited reasons that are taken completely out of context.

An excellent example of this “skimming to be offended” approach is provided by the American classic novel Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Frequently it is described as being too racist and coarse (because of the frequent use of the “n-word.” What is overlooked with regard to this novel is that it quite accurately portrays rural life in the states adjoining the Mississippi River in the years before the US Civil War. This all of its language needs to be placed in its historical context when deciding whether it is, or is not, a.cceptable. By extension, the various plot components need to be placed in their historical context as well. Only then can the degree of unacceptableness can be determined.

At the same time, there is one aspect of the entire book challenging process that those who mount the challenges seemingly overlook. By making a public issue of the suitability of a particular book for a given library, those who want it suppressed to one degree or another draw attention to it. This attention, in turn, can magnify public interest in the book, thereby putting the library in a difficult position.

Last year, for example the book The Joy of Sex was challenged by one of the appointed Public Library board members in a small city in southwest Idaho. His goal was to remove it from the circulating collection and place it behind the front check out counter so those who wished to check it out would have to ask for it in person. News of this effort naturally reached the general media, some of whom really pursued the story. As a result, the book’s popularity with patrons skyrocketed to the point that the book would stay checked out for many months. As news spread outside the area, the library began receiving Interlibrary Loan Requests from all over the state(and probably from neighboring states as well.) As a result, instead of the objectionable book quietly disappearing (the desired outcome), it rapidly became the most talked about book in town (an undesired outcome.)

While Banned Books Week focuses on books, I wonder when the list of movies challenged in various libraries will grow long enough to warrant a Banned Movies Week?

1 comment:

Suiiki said...

As a middle school student in a Catholic school several years ago, I was surprised when our libraian launched a "Banned Books Week Celebration" and then told us that to kick of the celebration, she would have each child in my seventh grade class draw a book out of a box to take home and read during that week. The books in the box were all on the "Banned Books List" that she had found online.

Her message, in bringing Banned Books Week to our attention, was that it is never appropriate to ban a book completely. You can dislike a book, you can tell your children you would rather they not read it, you can even disallow your children from bringing it into your home...but you must NEVER try to get it pulled from library and bookstore shelves.

It was not a popular opinion to have in the Catholic Church back then. It still isn't. In fact, she got a lot of negative response from parents for it. But she pressed on, and she won the support of the principal, the middle school English teacher, and eventually, the Diocese of Columbus, which now hosts a Banned Books Week festival in ALL the Catholic schools in the area.

And there is no longer any such thing as a banned book in those schools.

That one woman who believed in equal access to all reading material sparked a change in a very conservative environment, and made things better for everyone, not just the children in her own school. It only takes one open minded person taking a stand to combat the ignorance of the masses...because once that one person has spoken up, more will follow.