Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Banned Books Week

"First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Social Democrats, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Social Democrat. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Jew, Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me." - Pastor Martin Neimoller

I know this book is about the Holocaust, but there are two points I want to make by quoting it. The first is that when we talk about banning books we don't feel are appropriate, we forget about the slippery slope. The questions are, where do we draw the line and whom do we trust to pick the books to ban? There are books I don't want my 12 year old reading although I would have read them myself at 12. But I defend his right to pick up anything he can find in a public library or bookstore and reading it when my back is turned. If something disturbs him, he can come to me and talk about it. My second, less important point, is that the Nazis didn't just burn people, they also burned books.
A couple of years ago, I was at my son's school during parent teacher conferences. The parent in line ahead of me was asking the teacher to censor a book her daughter was going to read in class. She had highlighted passages she feared would disturb her daughter and suggested that the teacher paste over the lines some lines of her own creation that were safer. I was truly stunned. My son wasn't in the class reading that book but I told the teacher that I absolutely would have insisted that my son be given the unedited version of the book. Unfortunately the teacher was young and new to the school and didn't seem to have the strength to stand up to this mother. I feel sorry for her daughter. Imagine living a censored life!
Banned books are a funny thing. A fellow blogger wrote about kids passing around the list of books banned by the Catholic school nuns and reading more of them than of the ones on the approved list. When I tried to look up a list of banned books just now, I was reminded of trying to read Lady Chatterly's Lover as a kid because I had heard of its sexual content. At the time, I found it a huge disappointment. Apparently what was considered prurient by the previous generation, didn't mean much to a 70's preteen. My mother had far more lurid books on her shelves than Chatterly and I can tell you I read them all. As far as I can tell, none did me any harm. I noticed that one of the books I read back then is still on the often banned list today.
The kind of content that is "controversial" nowadays seems to fall into a few themes:
sexuality (duh), homosexuality, profanity (as if every 5 year old in this country doesn't speak fluent four letter words), death (I guess our kids won't learn about suicide until it happens to a kid in their high school or to someone in their family), rape and molestation (ditto), anything not Christian, anything leftist in leaning, anything containing the "N" word--sorry Mark Twain, and books about magic and the occult (begone foul Harry Potter).
Well, I need to get to work and then out scouring the bookshelves for a few banned books to read. I hope I inspire you to read one or two yourselves.


A Free Man said...

Great post, Sarala. A topic that i feel strongly about as well. One disturbing trend here in the UK is the banning of books that promote radical Islam. The government feels justified in doing so because of terrorism, but it is a damn slippery slope.

Jud said...

Free the books. All of 'em.

Kids can see a lot more in 30 minutes of TV than they could in reading most books.

JL said...


Would you eradicate it if you could?

sarala said...

Good question JL. In answer, when I was a kid I went to the public library and asked to check out a copy of Mein Kampf. They didn't have it and the librarian thought I was nuts. (Maybe I am). The idea was to know thy enemy.
We may need rules about hate speech (which we have) but we need to tread very lightly about censorship.

JL said...

Why am I not surprised by your trying to read Mein Kampf? :)

Personally, I have tried to read it, but to me all the excessively dense manifestos all sound the same in the basic structure. I brought that up due to some thoughts about the effects on psuedo-intellectual works on uneducated people with little exposure to any ideas outside of tradition and hearsay.

Most manifestos are designed to appeal overwhelmingly to underlying senses of anger, betrayal, and injustice; and are typically couched in 'scientific' language and dense prose to lend a sense of intellectual legitimacy to the proceedings. Writing a book of 400 pages somehow seems, you know, more 'intellectual' than some hairy freak screaming, "Let's blame it on the Black guy!"

Anyway. It's a valid question, and worthy of thought. I guess.