Skepticism

Banned Books Week and Beyond

“I never knew a girl who was ruined by a book.” – James Walker

Everyone has their pet hot-button issues. I have quite a few of them, actually, because that’s the kind of annoying, self-righteous gal I am. But if there is one issue that is guaranteed to fire me up fastest and with the most indignation, it’s book banning.

I can’t stand it. In any of its forms – banning, censoring, burning. It’s all part and parcel of the same act. Whether it’s bullying a library to remove a book from its shelves or publicly lighting on fire books by which one is offended, people attempting taking away from other people the right and responsibility to make up their own minds pretty much sucks.

Fortunately for all of you who were hoping to see me all fired up, we just so happen to be wrapping up 2010’s Banned Books Week. This last week of September is set aside to discuss books that have been challenged and in some cases removed from libraries and bookstores across the US. As far as the majority of these books go, for most enlightened, civilized folks, defending them isn’t that difficult. I mean, seriously, getting outraged over Catcher in the Rye is so quaint I can hardly believe anyone can do it with a straight face these days. And And Tango Makes Three, a.k.a. the gay penguin book? If you’re not a bigot and/or crazy penguin-hater, it’s not really a problem. Twilight? Okay, maybe I think there are better things you could be reading than that. But, at age nine, I read pretty much every Babysitter’s Club book that ever existed three times over and I still survived to become a relatively unscathed adult. It’s not worth it to pull Twilight off of the shelf completely and literally take that decision out of someone else’s hands.

But there’s the rub, right? This is all easy enough when the books in question fit our values, or at the least seem harmless against them. But when we encounter those books that are less worthwhile, it becomes more complicated. And less worthwhile books are certainly out there. There are books that have virtually no educational or artistic value, and there are books that promote misinformation and agendas of the most despicable kind. Surely we have to draw the line somewhere? We do, but this is a good place to employ one of the most famous quotes about speech censorship, by Clare Booth Luce: “Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but, unlike charity, it should end there.” We can, ideally, all agree to pick and choose according to our individual preferences and opinions and let others do the same.

That is, I believe, the essential message of Banned Books Week, and it’s a good one. However, I’d like to add another message to the occasion. Instead of just letting books that we don’t want sit on the shelf rather than destroying them, what if we start challenging people to pick those up too? Instead of treating books as ends in themselves (which they are, which is good), I think it would be interesting if we also considered them more as means to another end – namely, stretching, exercising and shaping the capabilities of our brains. This goes more to the heart of why books are important to value and protect in the first place. Books are more than the sum of the words they contain. They’re tools for learning how to understand and relate to the world around us, and tools for learning how to change it, too. Inherent in that is a lesson even us enlightened, civilized, book-reading folks can stand to be reminded of periodically – if we want to keep our minds in shape, we need to challenge ourselves with our reading choices. Not only does that continue our own progressions, it’s a great example for those who still need to pick up the habit.

Read the Bible. Read the Qur’an. Read Shakespeare, Twain and Wilde. Read Sagan. Read Salinger. Read Bradbury. Read Orwell, Rand and Marx. Read Hawking, Dawkins and Rushdie. Read Twilight. Read Harry Potter and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Just read. Read everything you can get your hands on – and, in this day and age, that’s virtually limitless. Read what challenges you, what bores you, what upsets you, not only so that you can learn more about it, but so you can develop those mental muscles that examine, process and decide. Just like training your body to run a marathon, you can’t train your mind to reason without pushing it past its current comfort limits. Read so you can learn to think for yourself.

Then once you’ve got that down, go out and fight like hell so that everyone else can do the exact same thing. Stand up against book banning, book desecration, book censorship. Whether or not you believe these collections of paper and printed words have any inherent symbolic worth, the fact is you can’t stop all of those who would destroy them. And they’re out there. You can’t personally restock all library shelves or physically pull books out of the hands of every single person who would rip them to shreds. So maybe the only thing you can do is to hold up a book as a symbol of the individual human capacity for reason, thought and progress. And fight for that. I protect books – all books, even books I don’t like – because, otherwise, I feel I’m betraying that. If we never take the risk of allowing repulsive or useless ideas to print and propagate, we’ll never develop a population that knows how to come up with something better. We will just continue building on ignorance.

Somewhere out there, there are people whose lives have been enriched, shaped and maybe even saved by books. I know, because I’m one of them. They’re important to me not just for what they contain, but for what they’ve taught me to do. I grew up without religion and without much family. I was often alone, and the only constant that has remained throughout my life is the written word. Because of books – good books, bad books and every kind of book in between – I know how find and evaluate information, ask questions and come to my own conclusions. That’s an essential part of who I am, and that’s what I think about each time Banned Books Week rolls around.

So, now that the week is over – let’s go out and read. We might disagree with some of the ideas you find, or we might not like the books we see others reading. But that’s good. That means it’s working. Let’s keep doing it.

Cross-posted on Deliberatepixel.

Jen

Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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29 Comments

  1. Nice!

    The used book store down the street from my house is running a banned books special for the occasion. Every book in their inventory that has ever been included on a banned books list, or even mentioned as a book to be banned, is marked down. So not only can we expand our minds with variety, in some places, we can do it cheaply.

  2. Just for the record, I don’t hate crazy penguins. Some of my best friends are crazy penguins. I just don’t think they should be allowed to marry us, unless . . . um . . . you know . . . they are of the opposite sex . . . and . . . erm . . . its for procreation.

  3. Great piece Jen. Only one small disagreement from me in that I will not read books that boor me. There’s not enough time in our short lives (IMO) to bother with bad or boring books unless there’s a great need or significant benefit. There are so many compelling, engaging and amazing books out there for me to waste my time slogging through a book that does not enlighten or entertain me. So perhaps the advice I’d give is to choose your books wisely and ask for lots of recommendations.

  4. Hi there!

    It’s actually my JOB to love books. No seriously, I totally get paid for it. <3

    I even love books that I don't particularly LIKE, because we as a culture need to have our ideals challenged and shaken to their roots. Even a book full of hatred, like Mein Kampf, needs to preserved, because it depicts a way of thinking that is steeped in evil and megalomania. If we were to ban a book like that, how we would know that kind of evil when we see it again?

    Not too long ago, Liberal folks such as myself were protesting censorship, Ray Bradbury came out and said that Liberals misunderstood his novel Farenheit 451. We foolishly thought it was about CENSORSHIP, when it was clearly about Political Correctness gone awry. Which … seemed to me like a total retcon. "Censorship", in our culture, is something that Conservatives do. "Political Correctness" is what us silly Liberals do. Maybe I'm misreading that, but to me both issues seem like two sides of the same coin. :(

    As for me, I'm for keeping ALL books. I believe that books should be treated with love! Which for me, means dog-earing the pages, underlining the parts you like, making notes in the margins, getting coffee stains on them, and letting cats sleep on them. I have an awesome book called: "Philosophy: Introduction to the fine art of wondering", and it looks like it's been through hell. Highlighted, pages ripped, the spine cracked. It's been through the ringer. I also have a copy of Twilight in my house. That one is pristine. ;)

    — Craig

  5. @Sam Ogden: Libraries generally have banned book displays and/or resources, too. And they’re free!

    @James Fox: I understand, but I disagree with that. If you limit yourself to only choices pre-approved by others, you’re missing the point of my post. My entire point was that sometimes the actual content you’re consuming isn’t as important as the process of consuming it. You don’t have to slog through a 800-page book you’re getting nothing worthwhile out of, but you should at least try and find that out for yourself. Then you can make your own decision to put it down and try something else.

  6. Back when Terry Jones (not the Python nor the Python programmer) was threatening to burn the Qur’an, some people proposed burning Bibles in response.

    I think a much better response would have been to hold Book UnBurnings, where we would distribute various controversial texts, books from various religions, some Dawkins and Dennett and Darwin, Asimov’s annotated bible, etc. Steal a page (no pun intended) from Ray Comfort.

    It would be great to be able to give each person who showed up a pile of books that together would provide a good grounding in both religion and skepticism, but may be impractical. Maybe giving a complete set to various local libraries, schools and book clubs. (Of course, there is no such thing as a “complete” set!)

    Or set up a server on a laptop or two, where people could download a library of public domain books (many of these books have long-since left copyright) to their iPads or Kindles. If electronic books became cheap enough, we could raffle them off, preloaded with as much of these books as we could get. or a $3 USB flash drive could hold hundreds of them. Maybe we could get some skeptical authors to donate or subsidize their books that are still in copyright?

  7. @Draconius:
    I think it depends on how one define s”political correctness”, it’s one of those word with a slippery meaning and since it’s also used in politically charged context I find it important to define it with care when using it.

    If political correctness means “don’t run around saying blatantly bigoted things in a professional setting without a damn good reason”, then there’s nothing wrong with it. If however it means “no one should ever say something that offends someone else” then we have a problem.

    I think for the most part the people pushing PC have the first definition in mind, but the nature of institutions is to distort an idea in the process of encoding it into policy and a lot of PC-inspired ideas (like university speech codes in the US) end up looking more like the second definition. Equally the idea that newspapers shouldn’t print the Danish Mohammed cartoons because it would offend Muslims was (to me) an unacceptable form of PC.

  8. Up here in Canadaland, the entire bookchain Chapters.Indigo bans certain books altogether from all of its stores. In practice these are usually books that upset the jewish community in general, and owner Heather Reisman in particuler, for example Ernst Zundel’s anti-jewish tirades. For a while, Reisman tried to ban all of Hitler’s books too, especially Mein Kampf; however she encountered too much criticism from some friends and upper management to put that plan into practice.

    I have no idea what other works Reisman may have decided we don’t need to know about nor read, but it does make you ponder the wisdom of such monopolistic practices as these huge chain stores offer.

    According to Roger Ebert — I have not been able to verify this — the American copies of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer no longer include the word “nigger” in them. That’s just too goofy.

    An argument can be made that we really need to have access to bad, useless, crappy, and evil books (and especially books with which we disagree) for the simple fact that such access helps us to identify that which is wrong. To broadly paraphrase/plagiarize Blake, without the bad, we have no good.

    It might also be argued that only by reading that which we either do not like or with which we disagree can we really learn anything meaningful. After all, preaching to the choir doesn’t really advance learning very much at all. (Sorry, has that already been said?)

  9. Draconius, in high school I checked out Mein Kampf from its library. In the cafeteria I read passages from it, and everyone at the table had a very good laugh. It is truly a work of poor laughable idiocy.

    All the more reason to not ban it. It is only when you have full access can you learn how silly something is (oh, and I just spent my now too long of a lunch hour watching the BBC program posted before this).

    I would have worn my “I read banned books” sweatshirt this week, but the weather warmed up and it is too hot!

  10. @Jen: Perhaps I should have explained that I put books down and never pick them up again if I find them boring. There’s never a guarantee that even if a book comes highly recommended you‘ll like it, but I do make an effort to read book reviews and get recommendations to save the time and expense of discovering a boring book. Given my limited amount of time being a sentient bag of chemicals I’d rather try to ensure I’m not wasting what time I can control outside of work. And I’m not so sure the process is all that important if you’re a regular reader otherwise, because it’s hard for me to believe, absent some clear research, that reading boring books is somehow better for you than doing something else like playing an instrument, watching a play/movie/concert, singing or whatever.

  11. It is beautiful that we now live in an age where book burning is a strictly symbolic act, since that can no longer make the book go away.
    I’m trying out the kindle app on my phone. Not sure how I feel about it, though I have found myself in situations recently where I wished I had brought a book — then voila! realized I had!

  12. @Buzz Parsec:
    In fairness, “don’t be a dick” is a very vague imperative. Different people perceive different things as dickish, and there’s no way to please all of them without staying silent. So the real question we all seem to be grasping toward is what should we say and when, which strikes me as too complicated a question to adequately answer with “don’t be a dick”.

  13. @ JEN
    They DO think you were ruined by reading those books. It was all the start of you not believing the enspired word of God. You, because of these books, are not a proper christian.. They believe that because of this you will go to hell. So these Books are worse then being molested (because that would not send you to hell)
    This is what fundamentalists believe. In their way they are saving you…

  14. @justv26: I’m not really sure what your point is here. I’m sure lots of people, whether they couch it in Christian morality or not, believe essentially the same thing when advocating banning books. That doesn’t excuse or justify it in any way.

    @stacie: I’m honestly not aware of an organized campaign to do that, but I’m assuming I’ve already made my own opinion clear. :)

  15. @James K: Oh yes, that’s exactly how I feel about political correctness! Even though I agree that racial slurs and such should be limited at work and school, etc., I don’t ever want to get to a place where “thoughtcrime” is a punishable offense. If everything that has ever offended anyone was banned or censored, we’d have no words left in the English Language. You just KNOW that there’d be someone out there protesting the word “the”, because definite articles are just SO limiting! :)

    @Chris_H: That’s the other reason I oppose censorship. If someone reads Mein Kampf and thinks: “Well, this is a load of crap!” they’re probably a very reasonable person. If someone reads Mein Kampf and thinks: “What an insightful and intelligent philosophical work!”, then banning the damn book probably wouldn’t have done any good. That kind of cluelessness doesn’t need any help, really. :)

  16. Draconius, when I finish drinking my coffee this morning, I will go up to my tiny greenhouse reading room (really, it is balcony that has been enclosed and has plants and a daybed!), and finish reading Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch. He has written how Mein Kampf was influenced by the Protocols of Zion, a plagiarism based on a bad novel.

    I am now on the chapter about how Dan Brown was sued for plagiarism by some guys who claimed he cribbed from the “non-fiction” history book. It is very funny (cause they mostly made it up due to really bad scholarship). By the way, The DaVinci Code was a horrible and stupid book, and the only good thing about it was that it was a quick read!

  17. Burning my copy of a book does not “take away from other people the right and responsibility to make up their own minds.” It’s my property, my choice. If I throw away a book I no longer want, it may end up incinerated anyway.

    Burning all copies or otherwise removing from them from circulation is where dickishness rears it’s head.

  18. @Bjornar: Yes, a label of some sort would be very helpful. But in places like Walgreens, I don’t think they offer category labels.

    @Jen: The campaign began a while back…maybe a couple years ago or so. It mainly targeted drugs stores, although regular book stores were also approached. The idea was to impress upon the stores that they were offering a book with unsound medical advice that could cause people to seriously injure or kill themselves. I’m not sure if the campaign is ongoing, but at the time there were some stores that took them off the shelves.

  19. I have burned a book. It was the absolutely horrible chemistry textbook in college. They replaced it another so I could not sell it back to the bookstore.

    The dorm had a fireplace, so I took the book and the box of punch cards from a wretched numerical methods computer class and made a nice fire. Um, did I just reveal how very old I am?

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