An email landed in my inbox the other day. It was from the Iowa City Public Library. Since I moved from IC to Cedar Rapids a few years ago, I had a minor moment of panic that maybe I'd had an overdue book for that long, and would now be buying them a new wing for the library with the fine. Not to worry though. It was just a publicity blurb for their Banned Books Week that runs September 26th through October 3rd. Being a bit of a maniacal defender of all things lexical, I thought I’d check out this Banned Books Week thing.
You should see the list of banned or frequently challenged books that we're talking about, because many of them are among the finest writings ever put to paper. If you'd like to see it, you can click here to go to the American Library Association website. If you follow but one of my exhortations of all those I may put forth on this blog, do this one: Read some of these books! The fact that anyone objects to them means that they probably have something important to say, something that people who given the opportunity would oppress you do not want you to hear.
That link summarizes for each title the various challenges that these books have been subject to. I don't have the space, or the inclination really, to do that here. Let me give you a couple of examples though, since I just read two of these books for a second time in the last couple of weeks..
One of the great things I get out of visiting my mom—other than some knock-down-drag-out bouts of Canasta and some terrifically good home-cooked meals—is that she and my dad amassed over the years a wonderful collection of books, and I get to borrow them! She doesn't charge late fees when I take forever to bring them back, either.
So the last time I was there, I borrowed a few books that I first read either in junior high or high school. One of them was “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles. Summed up in a sentence, it's an interesting story about a young man's experience at his World War Two era boarding school, mostly centered around his complicated relationship with his best friend. This book, though apparently never banned, was challenged a few times, once being described as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” Now, again, I just read this thing. There is not one overt sexual situation in the entire damn thing. Not one. It's a pretty good read, so go ahead, read it and tell me I'm wrong.
Now, if you do some of reading between the lines, you might say that there is a psychosexual undercurrent to it, but again, it's never, ever openly acknowledged. You know what else has a psychosexual component to it that you'd probably rather not admit? Your adolescent child, who might read such a book at that time in their life, as I did. That's reality. Let's deal with reality, not pretend it doesn't exist. My hackles get raised when blatant falsehoods are thrown around about books that I've read. This book could not be more fresh in my mind, and I know for a fact that qualifying it as a “filthy, trashy sex novel” could not be more misleading.
The other book that I just read that's on this list is John Steinbeck's “Of Mice And Men.” I won't go into detail about how many times and by how many people this tome has been subject to proposed banning, but let's just say this: The summary of the attempts on this book alone on the ALA website linked above runs almost 1000 words. A lot of people have objected to this book. You know it's got to be good!
These attempts at censorship come from all sides, too. Folks wanted OMAM banned because it takes God's name in vain, because it contains racial slurs, and a number of other reasons. According to the summary, it was challenged in 1992 in Florida and right down the road in Waterloo, Iowa due to “profanity, lurid passages about sex, and statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.” I'm not going to quarrel with those assertions. I don't remember the lurid sex—and believe me, I'm a big lurid sex fan, so I'm pretty likely to catch that kind of thing—but that other stuff is certainly in there.
The question is: What the heck is so wrong with that? The world ain't—unless maybe you're Lesley Gore—all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. People oftentimes act awful toward one-another. The world can be a tough place. Mentally retarded people sometimes have difficult lives. Itinerant workers are likely to have a hardscrabble existence. African-Americans don't always get the respect they deserve. What is so wrong with pointing that out? Better that we all pretend it’s not so?
For those of you who think that the government has any business telling me (and more importantly to your self-interest, you) what books can and can't be read, maybe you should consider the fact that if you get something you don't like banned, someone else might just be able to get something you do like banned. How does that make any of us better off?
Listen, dear friends, and put your trust here in Uncle Greg: They're just words. Expressions of ideas. Give yourself (or your children, since that's often how these things get started—we must protect the children from these dangerous words!) some credit for having the ability of independent thought. I read both those books as a youth. “A Separate Peace” didn't land me in some quasi-homosexual Svengali-style relationship, and “Of Mice And Men” didn't turn me into a coarse-talking migrant worker. Not that, even if they had, there is anything necessarily wrong with either! Man, I’m hot under the collar about this.
The freedom to have your own ideas is part of the foundation of the great nation we call home. If you think you should be able to censor what is available at your local public library because some ideas scare you, it’s your right to hold that idea, despite the fact that I find it abhorrent. But try to put those ideas into action, and try to usurp my freedoms, and you’ll find me not far away, fighting with every fiber of my being to destroy you in the arena of public discourse.