Controversial Thoughts about Banned Books Week
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Let me begin by saying clearly and unequivocally that I am against censorship. But then let me define “censorship.” Censorship is ONLY when government uses its power to suppress expressions of opinion, works of art or literature, etc. For something to count as censorship it has to come from a government entity and it has to have legal “teeth.” That is, it has to carry some kind of criminal or civil penalties for the publication or making or displaying of expressions.
Blanket condemnations of all censorship usually do not take into account some exceptions. I don’t think I have to or should mention a couple exceptions that nearly everyone agrees with. Think about it.
Every year a coalition of anti-censorship advocates, largely led by librarians (but not exclusively librarians), declares a week in September “Banned Books Week.” If you enter a public library or bookstore in America during that week you will see a display of allegedly banned books together with disparaging commentary about the banning of books.
I think most people assume that these books, most of them seemingly quite harmless, were banned by governments. Thus, the specter of censorship is aroused in their minds by the displays and the accompanying commentaries.
I have examined many such displays over the years. One book I have never seen displayed as a “banned book” is the Bible. And yet, I know for a fact that the Bible has been “banned”—from being read—in many public schools.
The banned books displays TEND to focus on books removed from libraries and required or recommended reading lists in certain public schools. Little, if any, mention is made of WHY they were removed. Often I have done my own research and discovered they were removed at the behest of parents because they were considered age-inappropriate—in a particular elementary or middle or even high school.
More often than not, as I examine the “banned books” in such displays, I agree that they are quite innocent and should not have been banned by the schools. So I have real sympathy with the “banned books” advocacy movements. For example, I have seen “To Kill a Mocking Bird” and “A Separate Peace” in some such displays of banned books. On the other hand, as the father who raised two children and has grandchildren in public schools, I am also sympathetic with some parents who want certain books removed from access in public schools insofar as they romanticize sex between adolescents or are full of depictions of extreme violence or contain a great deal of vulgar language. I happen to think parents SHOULD have some “say” in what their children are required to read in public schools and in what books are “carried” in libraries and bookstores—especially in the children’s departments or sections.
I have a question for the banned books week organizers and others who think they are opposed to “censorship” including the mistaken idea that “censorship” includes all exclusion of any books, anytime, anywhere.
I confess that I am a big fan of author Stephen King. I don’t enjoy much of the language in King’s books, but I choose to overlook that because I am not an impressionable child or young person and many of his books are extremely well-written with characters developed so vividly that I find myself caring what happens to them. In case you want to know, my favorite King piece is (and I find it hard to choose) “Hearts in Atlantis.” The movie was also very good. I just finished “reading” (actually listening to) King’s latest novel “Fairy Tales.” It was something of a disappointment, but I enjoyed following the main character’s “adventures.” King has a unique way of making his characters “come alive.” I can’t think of another author who does that as well, at least not for me.
However…I came across a reference to a banned King book from the distant past. It was originally written and published under a King pseudonym. It is one I have not read and for a good reason. It has been banned. It’s called simply “Rage.” Should it have been banned? Now, some critics will argue that it does not fall into the category of “banned books” because King himself asked that the publisher stop publishing it. However, after doing my research, I discovered that it was carried in most libraries, including many school libraries. So I went to my local library to find it. It took a long time for the very helpful librarian to find a copy of the book using his ILL search program. He found one copy in a distant state and it is contained in a one volume collection of King’s novellas written under his early pseudonym.
I searched various used books web sites and found a few old copies of the book for sale at extremely exorbitant prices. I think a typical cost was around $1k. Clearly, not only did King himself want the book dropped from publication and clearly not only did the publisher comply (which they would not have had to), but also clearly most libraries dropped it from circulation. I think it counts as a “banned book.” Can anyone find it in a public school library?
My question is this: Are the banned books advocates, I mean those who organize the “Banned Books Week” and the displays in libraries and bookstores, against the banning of “Rage?” Do they think “Rage” should have been kept in publication and/or in libraries? My larger question is “Aren’t there SOME books they think should be banned?” Is the “banning” of books always wrong? (I’m not here asking about government censorship.) Are there no exceptions? Why is “Rage” and books like it never included in the displays I see which always (in my experience) include only books MOST people see and automatically think “THAT shouldn’t have been banned!” That’s what I think when I examine the books on display. But then I think of “Rage” and similar books. Should I have been required to read “Catcher in the Rye” in seventh grade? I didn’t think so. I even protested being required to read it—in that grade. The teacher and principle brushed off my challenge as unworthy of consideration.
The one good thing that came from being required to read “Catcher in the Rye” then, at that age, was that it launched me on a search for anything else written by the same author and I loved “Franny and Zoe” and “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters” and other of his writings which I still consider much better literature than “Catcher in the Rye” even though they are very little known. To this day I cannot understand why “Catcher in the Rye” is considered “great literature” by anyone.
Did/do I want “Catcher in the Rye” banned? No. Except that it should be required or recommended reading ONLY age-appropriately. Is that “book banning?” I don’t think so. I think parents and students have a right to request that certain books be required or recommended reading only for students at certain ages and levels of maturity. I do not think THAT is “book banning.”