Books in libraries and texts for writing courses can seem like fairly benign objects since they’re just pages filled with words, bound in hard or soft covers, with occasional illustrations. They’re just words, right? Who would think that words on a page could incite strong reactions or push people to keep some books out of others’ hands?
Yet, words have power beyond the sum of their letters. Books have the power to inspire, to make you angry, or sometimes they put you to sleep. Other times, a book’s words make you re-think what you thought you knew, understood or just never really thought about. “Banned Books Week: Closing Books Shuts Out Ideas” celebrates our freedom to read, including those books that have been challenged or banned. Some banned books are classics of literature, others popular fiction and some offer a political perspective. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) was banned in Kern County, California, the scene of Steinbeck’s novel, for “vulgar words.” In 2001, “The Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, was burned in Alamogordo, New Mexico, outside Christ Community Church along with other Tolkien novels deemed as “satanic.” Another example is Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” which was challenged in 1980 by the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill New York School District because it was considered a “sex novel.”
These books were challenged and banned because the impulse to restrict material remains strong. Some of the most famous challenges have opposed works widely considered classics of American literature, including J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Probably the most publicized challenge in recent years was to the highly popular Harry Potter series for promoting “magic.” There are always those who believe that our society is safer or otherwise better off when our access to information is limited.
The American Library Association (ALA) describes a challenge as an attempt to remove or restrict material based upon the objections of a person or group. A ban is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material, thereby restricting its availability to others. However, librarians, lecturers, scholars and students know that well-informed people are free people; education is a crucial component to success
Libraries and bookstores provide a wide range of information across the breadth of public opinion in order to provide everyone with the opportunity to become a well-informed, independent-minded citizen—the bedrock of our democratic society. When a book is challenged, burned or not returned because of the ideas contained in it, our individual freedom to choose what to read for our families and us is obstructed. In 2007, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom received reports of 546 challenges to material in schools and public libraries. The number of challenges is most likely even higher because the ALA estimates that approximately three out of every four challenges are not reported to its offices.
Books are challenged everywhere in this country for all sorts of reasons, including religion, sex, violence and controversial political ideas, but books can also be challenged for the tone of the work or the message they carry. In June 2006, New Jersey assembly women Joan Quigley and Linda Stender called for booksellers to not carry or sell copies of Ann Coulter’s “Godless: The Church of Liberalism” because she criticized four 9/11 widows known as “the Jersey Girls” for their refusal to accept compensation for family members killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers.
The Langson Library has a copy of Ms. Coulter’s book and I read it. I didn’t agree with her characterization of the New Jersey widows or her views on global issues, but I could make up my own mind about those issues. I want other people to have the same opportunity to read and make up their own minds. If you like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” read it and know that conscientious people have questioned the violence and strong emotional content. You may prefer to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” challenged in 1987 by the Baptist College in Charleston, South Carolina, for “language and sexual references.”
ALA has a quote on its Web site that reads: “Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.”
The trick in reading is to remember that it’s not just like-minded people who have a right to speak freely. Noam Chomsky, speaking in a BBC television interview in 1992 with John Pilger on “The Late Show” said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” I read banned and challenged books to think. I encourage you to do the same.
Mitchell Brown is a Research Librarian for Chemistry, Earth System Science and Russian Studies at the University of California Irvine. He can be reached at email@example.com.