Monday, October 1, 2012

Banned Books Week

"The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame." - Oscar Wilde

Banned books. This week has been Banned Books Week. I know. I'm late. But it's never too late to read, and I can't imagine that extending awareness beyond this singular week is a bad thing at all. Brace yourself - there are a lot of links here, and I encourage you to share them, read them, absorb them all.

Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Library Association and a long list of other rather upstanding groups.

I've been reading a lot about the subject, and it's always been in my periphery. My awareness of "banned books" began in elementary school when I witnessed several books being thrown into the garbage by my public school's librarian. When I asked why they were being discarded I was told that they had been found inappropriate. I asked what that meant. Our librarian explained that either the books had been found inappropriate for elementary school students' age groups or contained content that was inappropriate in general. Amongst these books were several from the Guardians of the Flame series by Joel Rosenberg. A brief description of the series:
Guardians of the Flame is a long-running series by author Joel Rosenberg and is arguably his best-known work. The series is about a group of college students who participate in a fantasy role-playing game, and are magically transported to the world of the game by their gamemaster.
Ever the curious child, and familiar with the game of Dungeons & Dragons (as well as the cartoon series with a similar story), I asked what was wrong with those particular books. "They promote Satanism." I kid you not... Someone decided that Dungeons & Dragons was Satanic (lots of people still seem to hold this belief) and that any book about imagination, about people traveling to another world, overcoming disabilities, being challenged to do the Right Thing... was inappropriate because it would inspire children to Worship The Devil (I really thought these ridiculous theories about fantasy-genre books and games would die by the time I hit my 30's - but they persist).

To this day, there are books that suffer because of this kind of ignorance. Religious groups are not the only offenders. So are too-vocal parents who never bother to read literature and only latch onto one aspect of a book - often misinterpreting it - and then feed a mob mentality into getting a book censored.

In equal turns, I have seen a lot of people saying "These books aren't banned. I can go down to my local bookstore and pick up a copy right now." This is faulty logic, but it is powerful logic, and easily convinces many people that there's no such thing as banned books in the United States. That information flows freely and ideas are not censored. In comparison to other countries? in comparison to previous decades? This is true, but it's not the Truth.

When an institution that has the word "public" in it chooses to remove a book from its shelves or its curriculum because someone finds the use of a word or an idea in it offensive, that is censorship, and that is "banning" a book.

Here's an example:

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. This book has been challenged in locations and removed from some. Why? During a book burning in the story, one of the many tomes incinerated is the Bible. This put people up in arms. "It talks about burning the Bible! How horrible!" ...except the point of the book is that, yes, it IS horrible, but if you continue to ban literature that offends or inspires people, then the Bible is going to end up on that list eventually. What other offenses might Fahrenheit 451 contain? Questioning authority, individual critical thought...? The major themes of Fahrenheit 451 are exactly the themes of arguments made by people wanting to STOP book bannings in public (especially educational) venues. 

By the logic that bans books like Fahrenheit 451, movies like The Matrix and Equilibrium should be banned, too. (Of course, we just take care of the "appropriateness" factor with ratings on films. Equilibrium was rated R for gun-violence, some language, and "drug-use" - despite the "drug-use" in the film being mandatory according to law.)

If you think it's not a problem, then also consider the Harry Potter series. In the early 2000's, I was stuck in a town I will not name for a short time due to an alternator in the car in which I was traveling having died... There were signs for book burnings, calling for people to destroy any and all Harry Potter books & paraphernalia because it brought children to witchcraft. Yes, this was in the early 2000's A.D. in a town large enough to be called a city.

I've kind of started rambling, but I wanted to say this:

Just because a book may no longer be banned on a government level (thus, the best word to use would be "outlawed"), doesn't mean the history of banning is something we should forget. We need to be aware of the types of books that HAVE been banned - not just in the United States, but all over the world - and guard against letting these sorts of things happen in the future.

Do a Google (or search engine of your choice) search and explore the tons of blog and news articles about banned books.

Educate yourself on just what book censorship is, how it happens, why it happens, what is happening with it now and has happened with it in the past. Don't just say "I don't see it, so you must be making it up." And, before you write off Wikipedia links, check out the source references at the bottom of articles - people have done the research, respect that and make educated decisions based on what you find.

"Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it." - Mark Twain

"Censorship is the enemy of truth -- even more than a lie. A lie can be exposed; censorship can prevent us knowing the difference."  -- Bill Moyers (transcription, video)

Stephen King's thoughts, from 1992.

Here are some informational links, if you are curious about what books are banned, how and why, and where.

Book Censorship (defined)
Challenging Literature (what it means when literature is challenged)
Book Censorship in the United States
Most Commonly Challenged Books in the United States
Books Banned By Governments

And particularly: About Banned Books (from the ALA, explaining a lot of the details on how and why books are banned)

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