Now let us Praise Banned Books

It’s Banned Books Week again, that week cherished by bibliophiles and lovers of intellectual freedom, a time when the stupidity and bigotry of would-be censors is exposed to the light of day. Granted, a small part enjoying of BBW comes from a feeling of coalition; it’s nice to meet others who prize big ideas over small minds but the core of the celebration are the books themselves. Banned Books  are some of the best stories in the world.

When I first heard Americans were banning books, I was a teenager and my personal library was kept on one shelf.  At the time, I was amazed that anyone in the USA endorsed censorship, especially after after WWII (why copy any policy approved of by Hitler?)  The real surprise came when I read which books folks had wanted to ban:  Alice In Wonderland?  To Kill A Mockingbird?  The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds?  Were they kidding? Almost every book on my shelf (and all of my favorites) had been a target for censorship at some point.

I also noticed titles that were not on the list.  One of families that I baby-sat for kept a collection of paperbacks in the living room that, shall we say, were not to my taste.  Not your standard coffee table fare (although that’s where they were kept).  None of those titles were on the challenged book list.  Now, I don’t want to control anyone else’s reading material but I couldn’t understand the rationale. Why would be book-banners ignored the neighbor’s volume of “Loving Family” (if you can’t guess the plot lines, you don’t want to know) and pick on my Catcher In The Rye?

I heard a lot of canned remarks about parental concerns and impressionable minds whenever I asked this question but campaigns against specific books still didn’t make any sense when I looked at the challenged material and the specifics of the parental concerns.  It took some thinking but I think I’ve found the real reason specific books get some folks looking for matches.  The reason isn’t sex or drugs, violence or rock-n-roll.   Books get challenged when they contain material that gets the reader to think.

An uneducated boy and a runaway slave become the moral conscience in a story where the “civilized” humans promote racism, mob rule and a level of gullibility that should make humanity blush. At the climax of the book, the boy denies the values he’s been taught and decides to help the slave find freedom, even if it costs the kid his soul.  Turning your back on society is an outrageous idea.

Another young man decides he won’t sell school candy and sticks to his decision even though he’s persecuted for it and his actions “disturb the universe.”  Not following the herd is a dangerous glamorous idea for any teenager to entertain.
After years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, a downtrodden black woman discovers her own voice and value and makes a life of herself.  That concept’s downright revolutionary.  
In a way, getting challenged has become literature’s contrary seal of approval.  It means the work is so polished and stimulating that someone fears a reader may understand it. Fear of understanding is why the censor says, “This you may not think; this you may not know.” Shirley Jackson knew this when she heard her story, “The Lottery” had been banned in South Africa.  She said the ban proved the country understood her story, an allegory that shows how evil becomes invisible when it’s incorporated into the culture.  Houston, Texas also got the point because they pulled The Lottery off of bookshelves two years ago.*  If there’s ritualized evil in Texas, they want to make sure no school child can spot it.  


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