I’ve always had the belief that any book someone wants banned is a book worth reading. And this week, as we observe the 30th anniversary of the American Library Association’s “Banned Book Week” — a celebration of our freedom to read — there are lots of reminders about the censors lurking out there. In Arizona, they’re fighting to keep Harry Potter at Hogwarts and off the shelves. In Texas, some folks still see demons at work in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And in these and so many other cases, it’s not so much that the censors don’t want to read these books as it is they don’t want anyone to read them.
Can we all together say “intolerance.”?
This is nothing new, of course. The Gutenberg Bible had its detractors beginning in the 1450s, people who found this first book printed with movable type to be the devil’s work and ordered others not to read it, although it’s not as if anyone else could skip down to the local bookstore to pick up a copy. We’ve seen the banning continue unabated since then, whether the work has been by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Swift, deSade, Byron, Goethe and on and on.
The focus for some of the censors this year is on a new target: “Fifty Shades of Grey,” part of the the so-called “mommy porn” trilogy that has sold millions of copies around the world. If it’s that popular, got to be bad, right? Well, no one ever said that banned books had to be well-written books or anything like that. But the quality of the writing is beside the point. Banning is the point. (Confession: I haven’t read the trilogy, but I have skimmed one of the books while standing in a bookstore recently. I stand by my assertion that whatever the reasons it is selling so well, the quality of the writing is not what’s driving sales.)
A few years ago in South Carolina I was called to testify in a court case that involved censorship. The book at issue was Robert Cormier’s young adult novel “The Chocolate War.” A group of parents had somehow managed to bring to court their demands that the book be stripped from the public library shelves. Absurd on its surface, their argument was exposed for its narrow, obscured judgment. My role was simply to identify the novel’s literary qualities, place it in an historical context and explain its plot and language. I did so eagerly happily, and the parents lost as well they should have. No one protested their right to keep their children from reading it (blind as that notion may be), but the case was decided in favor of the library (as well it should).
You get the idea. Banned Books Week is just one week in a year full of misguided efforts to censor the reading of others. It could as easily be Banned Books Year. As could last year. Or next year. But for now, let’s all take some time to celebrate one of our most critical freedoms. And to recognize that keeping it will never be easy.