Today’s writing blog post crosses ever so slightly over into political commentary, so if you have qualms about my protesting the fact people want to ban books, you might want to skip this post.
Written work has probably been banned since the beginning of written communication. I’m sure some Cro-Magnon shaman who disagreed with the way a hunt was depicted on a cave wall forbad his or her tribe to view it. And, as it’s always been, forbidding someone from seeing something usually results in an overwhelming desire to see the forbidden thing.
Religion and political power always seem to raise their heads in these disputes. You can’t read this book because it goes against the Bible. Only if you’ve read the Old Testament do you appreciate that irony. People who look to the Bible as their moral guide in deciding which books you should and shouldn’t read conveniently overlook the fact that particular book is rife with rape, murder, infanticide, lust, political corruption, and incest among other distasteful things, which go largely unpunished. Governments have banned works–Stalin’s successors didn’t like the way Boris Pasternak portrayed the Soviet system and banned Doctor Zhivago; the Nazis held massive book-burnings designed to expunge the Reich of anything with a Jewish or Communist taint; Salman Rushdie had a fatwa issued against him by Islamic fundamentalists for The Satanic Verses.
Of course, Pasternak received a Nobel (for his poetry) two months after Doctor Zhivago was published outside the Soviet Union. The Nazis met their inevitable end in the spring of 1945. Rushdie, after being guarded in undisclosed locations for years, has a long (a very long) list of awards, including the Booker. All, as well as countless other examples, are testaments to the power of the written word and the fact people don’t like being told what they can and can’t read.
And lest you think this is a thing of the past or only occurs in regressive dictatorships, think again. A county in North Carolina recently banned 1952’s The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Considered one of the best books about racial identity and prejudice, The Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953 and has been a mainstay on high school reading lists since. Just not in a particular county in North Carolina, where a school board member said, “I didn’t find any literary value.” (Translation: Our precious white boys and girls do not need to read about the problems with racial identity; it might make them tolerant.) After that county’s decision, sales of The Invisible Man shot up, for which, I’m sure, the Ellison estate is truly grateful.
When we write–at least when I do–we don’t think about whether or not our work will be banned by some religious prig or overbearing politician. Self-censoring is just as bad as government or church censorship. It inhibits our craft. Do my fingers hesitate over the f-word when I’m writing? No, because if I drop the f-bomb, it’s because it’s central to the character using it. We have to write the story that’s in us. Anything we do to alter that means it’s not the right story and that we’re not truly writers.
This last week of September is the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. Libraries around the country highlight books, which have been banned for various reasons, putting them on display and encouraging people to check them out. Librarians are quite often at the forefront of complaints about books, and it’s the courageous ones who stand up to the book-burners, whether literal or figurative. (Click here for a list of ALA’s most challenged books from 2000 – 2009. Some won’t surprise you; others will shock you.)
If you don’t want your child to read the Harry Potter series or R. L. Stine or Toni Morrison or Ralph Ellison, then don’t buy those books. Tell your child they’re not to be read. (Understand, though, that forbidding something makes it ever so much more desirable.) You’ll end up with an intellectually stunted child who won’t be able to handle the real world, but that’s your choice.
However, don’t tell me I can’t read them or that my child can’t read them. Is that limiting your First Amendment rights? No, because you’re free to opine all you want about what you find objectionable about a particular book, but you can’t force your narrow-minded opinion on others whose minds are open to knowledge.
There is no irony in the fact that the books people seek to ban are the ones which expand our knowledge, which challenge facts we shouldn’t accept on face value. Trust me, I never would have learned about the real facts of life (and not the confused mess my mother told me because she found sex disgusting) had one classmate not circulated a much-thumbed copy of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask. I never would have learned to question authority without Animal Farm or 1984. I never would have understood the horrors of war if not for The Red Badge of Courage or All’s Quiet on the Western Front. I never would have learned about the negative aspects of letting money rule your life if not for The Great Gatsby or Bonfire of the Vanities. I would have followed my family into intolerance had I not read To Kill a Mockingbird or, yes, The Invisible Man. And, I never would have learned about the dangers of banning books if I hadn’t read Fahrenheit 451. Somewhere in America, at some point, all those books I mentioned have been banned, and, thank goodness, those bans didn’t work.
Even now, when I hear some puritanical school board has banned a book, I want to read it. I want to know what they’re afraid of so I can emulate the author. Yes, that’s how I’ll know I’ve “made it” as a writer–when some troglodyte bans a book I’ve written.
Celebrate Banned Books Week–read a banned book in public and piss off a book-burner. You’ll feel better for it.