Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Banned Books

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
--Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr.

It’s Banned Book Week, always a great reminder of the amazing works of literature (as well as popular dreck with controversial subject matter) and one of the defining statements of our Constitution. I’m a fan. I like to read the books that make the list and I am intrigued by the reasons for censoring books. Back when I was in college in the mid-90’s, the idea of banning books was treated as a criminal act, and while we espoused the attributes of postmodern theory that encouraged us to move away from absolute truths, one of the few universally understood Truths (with the capital “T”) was that everyone should have access to sources of knowledge and the right to determine what material was suitable for him/herself. A decade later and I wonder what happened to our idealism.

This year more than ever, it seems, the idea of censoring books and even rescripting the narratives that comprise our collective past seems to have pushed to the forefront of the collective conscience. Maybe I have a tendency to notice the limiting of knowledge more because I live in Texas, and the state school board currently is in the process of adopting textbooks. Earlier in the year the state school board decided to limit references to Thomas Jefferson because Jefferson coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” This week the state school board made the news again, this time for decided to remove references to Islam in school textbooks. Several weeks ago, the Humble, Texas, ISD revoked an invitation to young adult author Ellen Hopkins after they decided that her books were inappropriate for their Teen Lit Festival in January, and several other authors also invited to the festival pulled out in solidarity against the censorship of their fellow author. Meanwhile, outside of the Lone Star State and just in time for the 10th Anniversary release of her book, young adult author Laurie Halse Anderson is defending her National Book Award Finalist Speak against a Missouri professor who believes the book is “soft-core pornography” because of its depiction of date rape. Banned Book Week is vital because censorship remains a common, even accepted, practice, and even seems more prevalent.

I guess I just don’t understand.

What sort of education are we providing children if we aren’t exposing them to issues and then discussing these topics? Islam is the second largest religion in the world; why shouldn’t a Texas seventh grader learn about it? Why shouldn’t they be given the framework from which to form educated opinions when they become adults? How can one claim to be a patriot and love America but also deny the contributions of a man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, just because he, one of the founding fathers normally praised by conservative factions within the country, believed that government should not interfere with the practice of religion (and therefore the opposite as well)? By denying teens narratives about difficult topics such as rape, are censors protecting innocence or isolating the victims of very real crimes, victims who might have found hope in a fictional story to which s/he could relate? A lack of information doesn’t stop the crime, it just restricts the information that might help, enrich, educate, and raise awareness.

I grew up in a tiny town and by the time I left home for college I was under no delusions about the quality of my public school education. Resources were limited and reading wasn’t always encouraged. The district wasn’t wealthy and the school only had a few class sets of books; we read The Scarlet Letter, some Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, but didn’t have the opportunity to study books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or The Catcher in the Rye. Nonetheless, I was never told that I COULD NOT read a book, and knowing that I wanted to study literature in college, I regularly sought out the books other schools were reading such as The House on Mango Street and Beloved. My teachers—including my mother, who was my junior English teacher—recommended books and while they occasionally offered opinions on the quality of books, they never removed the book from my hands (or the library).  Would I have been prepared for a college literature program if these books had been denied me?  I certainly would have struggled to catch up.

I’m not sure that the same access would be available to me today, however. In the last decade we as a society have developed a black-and-white view of the world, denigrating the diversity of thoughts and beliefs that once were considered the core of our liberty. During this time, the young adult book selection has exploded and books have developed cultish devotees willing to attend midnight release parties. We should be living in an era in which books are more popular than ever, finding a wider range of readers and adding thoughtful voices to the public discourse. Yet for every Harry Potter midnight release party, there is a minister in Florida wanting to burn copies of the Koran, a school board removing all 50 copies of Girl, Interrupted because of sexual content (never mind that the book is a memoir about a teen girl’s actual experiences, nor that most of these students being “protected” would have access to the movie versions of this and similar, more graphic stories).

Books are too socialist, too sexually explicit, too violent, too pagan, too “upsetting.” What’s left, though? How do people grow without ever actually experiencing anything? And isn’t it better to read about racial violence than slipping into a “protected” society that perpetuates actual racism and violence? Even if the Texas Board of Education refuses to acknowledge Islam, it is still a major religion and Muslims are living in our communities and contributing to our society. What is the benefit of promoting prejudice and hate through omission in textbooks? This decision is as ridiculous as the renaming of “freedom fries” a few years ago when “patriots” couldn’t comprehend why France wouldn’t fight a war in Iraq. Sorry, but that country didn’t disappear simply because some closed minded people wouldn’t say “French toast.” Sexual issues, racism, different religious and political beliefs—these are all controversial topics that won’t go away by burying our heads in the sand. And often books serve as conduits for conversations. We should nurture these dialogues not stupidly deny them because they might be uncomfortable.

Happy Banned Books Week.

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