I originally posted this article on November 23rd 2011, and edited it for this year's Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week takes place from September 24th-30th. I challenge you all to pick up a book that has ever been challenged this week and to read it. You may be surprised at how often certain books are challenged!
When does one choose that a book should be banned? When does one decide that a book is not an acceptable read for a child of a certain age? Doesn’t banning a book actually make it more interesting to a child or a young adult? I know when I was 8 I REALLY wanted to read that one Judy Blume book that the lady in the book shop told me I was too young to buy. Her telling me that I was too young just made me run off to the library, borrow it and read it. A little like Matilda in Roald Dahl’s wonderful book of the same name, she was forbidden to read, so made all the more effort to go out and find books to read. I had actually gone down to the little book shop with my book token (gift card for those of you who are younger) to buy Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself but they didn’t have it, so I asked for Forever. Maybe the shopkeeper was right, maybe I WAS too young, but who was she to tell me that?
I read Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers when I was 10. It didn’t turn me into a promiscuous young teen, quite the opposite! Actually, by the age of 10 I had probably read a lot of books that many of my peers had never even heard of. This comes from a mixture of different things: not having a TV for a lot of my childhood, having parents who had equal love for music and literature, and a pure love for curling away in a corner and getting lost in a story. Sometimes when things aren’t going all that well in the real world, it’s wonderful to be able to run away to a different place created by someone else’s words, and hide there for a while. When you are a shy child, it’s so much easier to glean knowledge from books than actually ask about it. Sometimes this leads to some amazing reading experiences, like discovering my favourite book of all time, Marge Piercy’s Gone To Soldiers at 13, a book I have subsequently read at least once a year. Sometimes this leads to just memorable experiences, like trying to read Voltaire and wanting to throw the book against the wall. And sometimes to some terrible experiences, like really really trying to read Twilight but giving up after each page. It does go to show that literature is all about taste and opinion in the end, doesn’t it?
So here we come back to my original question: how does one determine that a book should be banned from a school curriculum or a library? Who determines what can be sold in the shops and what cannot? Movies are screened before a group of people who determine via certain criteria (levels of violence, sex, language, blood) what age group they are appropriate for. But films have graphic images, there is no mistaking an image of a person being shot dead, or two naked people making love. A book is a little different, as you can describe a scene in great detail, but in the end it is up to the reader to imagine and interpret each scene.
I don’t know how it is for others, but words immediately create images in my mind, and from then onwards they are burnt there for the rest of the novel, even after I have finished it. For example, I have a very specific image of Count Vronsky from Anna Karenina in my head, and I will forever be disappointed whenever I see a film adaptation of the novel because the actor playing the character will never meet my expectations. Everything is open to each individual’s interpretation. A scene in a book may be interpreted completely differently by a mature 13 year old girl than it is by a 25 year old boy who has had a very sheltered childhood. So who decides who reads what?
In the past books were removed from shops, banned and destroyed for different reasons. Let’s keep aside the incidents of mass book destruction for another topic that I recently brought up, and stick to talking about individual books. DH Lawrence’s last novel (and probably most famous), Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was banned in its original format, and only released in a heavily censored version. When Penguin tried to release the full, uncensored version in 1959 they were taken to trial under the new (at the time) Obscene Publications Act. Penguin won, but only after a lengthy trial. The same type of issue happened in the 19th century with Gustave Faubert’s novel Madame Bovary, a similar tale of love, sex, and adultery. George Orwell’s Animal Farm has been a firm favourite in England on the national curriculum reading list, often one of the main pieces of literature to be read for GCSE or A-Levels, however, I have read about it being removed from reading lists at schools in the US. For what reason? Because it contains “pro-communist values and explicit sexual matter” see HERE. (Strange because it is actually a description of dystopia, using the communist regime in the USSR as an example of how a utopian political regime can go horribly wrong when it is practiced by human beings!). Another one is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – challenged and/or banned in many schools for all kinds different reasons. Is it because we cannot depict children killing each other off in a novel because it may give people ideas? Or is it because we want to protect children from reading about anything remotely dark or stressful or bad? It defies all logic to remove a certain novel that may contain scenes of violence and hatred from the shelves, but to be completely OK with children playing graphically violent war games for hours on end. So why are books considered more dangerous than TV or video games? Why try to sanitise learning from literature while feeding violence and danger to people in another format? Enid Blyton is dangerous, but blowing up other people with huge military weapons on TV isn’t?
The few examples cited above are pretty mainstream examples of challenged or banned books. Dystopia, religion, sex, violence, hatred, bullying and death are all dark matters that we may not want our children to have access to at an early age. But by removing the freedom of letting our children decide whether they want to read these books or not, are we not removing part of their education in life too? The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights provides the right to freedom of speech to all inhabitants of the country, therefore removing the right for the government or any body of humans to censor or ban reading material, unless it falls under certain obscenity, defamation or riot rules. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This means that racist/anti-semitic and/or controversial religious (i.e. cults) documentation can circle freely without any censorship. This also means that you are allowed to stand up and speak your mind in any public setting without being shut down. We all know that this is not always the case, but the law exists to protect our freedom of speech. So, why are certain books removed from certain places then? You are telling me that I can freely hand out pamphlets for a controversial and strict religion to teenagers on the street, but I can’t let my teen read Of Mice and Men?! Where is the logic in that?
The American Library Association's website has a list of the Top Ten challenged books per year. Take a look at the list for 2016 HERE. What scares me more about this 2016 list is that the reason for most of the books to be challenged is “includes LGTB characters”. What does that even mean? That a book should be removed from library shelves because it contains a reference to LGBT characters? So, even in this day and age we are still using this as a reason to ban literature? Back in the days of Oscar Wilde it was considered normal to ban books that referred to homosexuality as it was illegal (or technically, sodomy was against the law), so an easy way to ban literature would be to claim the writer was homosexual. But nowadays? Especially with the emergence of so many teen suicides because of bullying, and so much adverdity from government officials, shouldn’t we be promoting these types of novels, not hiding them away, and by challenging them making them seem wrong? Haven't we gone past all that BS from centuries ago now?
Have a look at the graphs showing who the main challengers are HERE. Parents and teachers! There is something so wrong with this… Did I just have much more open-minded parents and teachers than most people?! Of course my parents let me read whatever I wanted, even sometimes pushed me to read books that I may not therwise have tried to read, and most of my teachers were overjoyed by my appetite to read and read and read, even lending me their own copies of books when the school libraries didn’t carry them. So was I just lucky? I can’t imagine being a parent or a teacher and not allowing my child/student to actually read something they want to read… So in the end it all boils down to the individual choice: if one person decides that a book is wrong, then should it be removed from shelves, and made more difficult for people to access? Food for thought.
HERE is a list of people/organizations who have banned and/or challenged books in the past and the present. Have a look and think about it.