Book Banning

Last September was the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week where people come together and celebrate the freedom to read. I do not understand the notion of banning books. No one is forcing you to read these books, no harm will come to your children if they look at, touch, or god-forbid actually read the book. Are these individuals (and their committees) so scared of people thinking for themselves, and having ideas in their head that may challenge what others believe?

The list of books that have been banned or at least challenged over the years is astounding. The seemingly innocent book The Lorax was banned in 1989, and yes, even the dictionary wasn’t excluded with schools and libraries in America banning certain dictionaries in 1969. It wasn’t any better in 1987 when a school board banned the American Heritage Dictionary because it contained “objectionable” words. Now I know this was many years ago, surely people have come to their sense by now? Of course they haven’t. Last year a new set of books were requested to be banned including The Hunger Games and the Twilight series. It is not just new books either, last year’s list also showed the reappearance of To Kill A Mockingbird and Brave New World; the same books that have been challenged probably every year since they were published.

The good folks and folkettes at The University of Melbourne compiled a list of books in 2010 that have been banned in Australia over the years. It is rather long, the complete list is here but it is curious to see some of the books that we Australians and whoever is on these committees thought were ban worthy. One of the well known Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence that was banned across multiple countries with trials and controversies concerning those who tried to have it published. When Lady Chatterley’s Lover did get to be sold in 1960, one newspaper said a bookstore in London had 400 people waiting in line; mostly men surprisingly, and sold all of its 300 copies in under 15 minutes.

The ban of this book I can understand based on the sexual nature and the views of society at the time; it lasted for forty years so it was a serious issue. Even now it is contentious. The interesting ones are the ones that don’t last very long, maybe a year or a few years. Most of the time public outcry fixes these issues and stops or reinstates a book fairly quickly, or common sense comes into play. One interesting one on the University list is William Adlington’s translation of The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius, which was banned in 1933 until 1936. I don’t know if it was a different version than my version of The Golden Ass, but the copy I have on my shelf seems rather ok.

I can’t help but think as I look at these lists that banning books has no purpose whatsoever. What was so wrong in 1933 that people couldn’t read about that was suddenly improved in 1936? This is the ideal argument why books should never be banned. Why should we let one person (or their committee) tell us that children, or even worse, adults cannot read what they like. Reading is reading. I do not want to hear an excuse that one person (or their committee) believes a book has immoral tones, or witchcraft, or immoral sexuality. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a prime example of this. This book caused such a scandal, but do you know what, society changed, the book was reinstated and now people look around and absentmindedly ask, ‘really, that was banned?’ while thumbing through 50 Shades of Grey.

What I am saying is book banning has no place in a decent society. In her article Jennifer Magelky tells me that they were banning books way back in 450BC. Anaxagorus had his works burned because he said the sun was a white stone and the moon reflected the sun’s rays, which was deemed derogatory towards the gods.  But I would like to think as we continue through the 21st century with our sexual ads and music, our commercialisation of everything, our acceptance that we deserve everything and nothing is a privilege, and the fact we are still hover boardless, people still want to stop children from reading books because they promote discussion or show situations and characters that make one person (or their committee) uncomfortable.

I understand sexuality and especially homosexuality makes people uncomfortable in some countries. Especially in the decades where nobody had sex and children were bought at the baby store. But then society came to its senses and went ‘oh it wasn’t as bad as we feared and no one was corrupted’. And what’s to say is someone’s of corruption? Is reading Catcher in the Rye really corruptive just because it contains too many swearwords? Is Animal Farm corruptive because it exposes and teaches about the dangers of corrupt power, ruthless governments, and dictatorship? Is To Kill A Mockingbird really corruptive because it shows you that everyone should be treated equally as human beings and you cannot judge someone based on the colour of their skin? How is pointing out the faults and the truths about ourselves a bad thing?

There is another article by R. Wolf Baldassarro from 2011 that discusses the apparent issue with Catcher in the Rye which covers its scandalous history. Yet despite being so contentious, it is equally loved as hated. According to Baldassarro between 1961 and 1982 it was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in America. In 1981, it was apparently both “the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States”. At least they’re improving.

Australia seems to have a little more sense on its shoulders than others. We did ban Catcher in 1956, however it was lifted a year later because of public outrage I believe. A lot on the UoM list were based around sexuality though they’re not the only types in there. In America, in my opinion, they seem to get antsy about a lot of things, very quickly, that hold very little importance to the grand scheme of things. In 2007 a young adult novel by Maureen Johnson was being banned from a school library because it contained lesbian characters. Not only were they homosexual, but in one scene they kissed! The same issues from the 1930s are still lingering in 2007 and even 2013. How is this possible?

Even Bond is not spared with Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me being banned in 1962 because of its high level of sexuality. The thing I understand is yes, there is a lot of violence and sex, but why does that stop it being available? Surely children are not going to be the first people to line up for a Bond book. As Mark Twain said, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” If you don’t want to read it, don’t read it. What harm can come of giving the option. Do these individuals (and their committees) think they can control what people do, say, and feel? Why do they think they have control over what people read?

The worst part about banning books is those that don’t even contain anything scandalous are getting banned as well. Extreme sex and violence in the wrong age bracket is an issue I will give you that, but by changing the facts of life and pretending things don’t exist is doing more harm than any book would ever do.

There are stacks of books that have or almost made it in the banned book lists, even The Hunger Games and Twilight were being contested because of their content. The popularity of these books and the fact society hasn’t crumbled yet shows that people overreact. If you have so little faith in your child’s ability to separate reality and fiction, or grasp an understanding of the basic facts of humanity no matter how different it is from their own lives, then I pity the parent (and their committee). One day they’ll find out kids know about these things even without reading them in a book and there is not a lot they can do to stop it.

There are so many great articles to read about banned books that are very fascinating, especially when you read these banned books now and cannot figure out what the issues are. But that is the joy. Societal change! Society changes, people change society and then society looks back on itself and judges itself. It is a very weird cycle in which I do not try to understand. A society can try to ban Harry Potter because it promotes witchcraft, and the same society can ban Fahrenheit 451 which is a book about a government burning and banning books. The irony is beautiful. And no, Harry Potter doesn’t promote witchcraft. It shows loyalty and friendship and the power of being a decent person. It shows that small people can do big things, and it shows you that people come from their circumstances and this does not make anything excusable. It’s practically Horton Hears A Who. Another ironic one is The Diary of Anne Frank which was once challenged for its sexual content, but it was also challenged in 1983 by someone (and their committee) in Alabama because it was “a real downer”. Of course it is!

This isn’t against America, it just seems a lot of examples do come from there, so apologies America. But it is rather interesting as an outsider looking in; of all places America should not be complaining about books, freedom of speech is in their constitution. Why isn’t the world’s freedom of speech being put to good use instead of against other people’s free speech? People pull that out at every chance they have but they seem to ignore it when it is about a topic they don’t like. As Oscar Wilde once said, “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Allyce
    Feb 18, 2013 @ 09:33:01

    What a lovely post and I cannot agree more. Books should not be banned. As you said, if you find it objectionable, don’t read it. Not force others not to read something because you don’t agree with it.
    I also think its interesting when children’s picture books are banned but that discussion is something of a can of worms 🙂



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: