Banned Books Week

Today is the beginning of Banned Books Week for 2008.

Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities. People challenge books that they say are too sexual or too violent. They object to profanity and slang, and protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups–or positive portrayals of homosexuals. Their targets range from books that explore the latest problems to classic and beloved works of American literature.

Now let’s face one quick fact: just because someone tried to ban a book doesn’t mean that book is automatically great literature.  I’m sure there are some real stinkers on the list.  I’ll never know for sure because I’m not going to go out of my way to read a book just because some idiot somewhere tried to have it banned.

Most of “reasons” given for banning these books show that people aren’t actually reading them; they are merely regurgitating the vomit they previously swallowed from the last generation of book-banners.  Some of these reasons seem to me to be transparent excuses; they said they wanted the book banned for one reason, but they really wanted it banned because of a different reason:  the book challenged the accepted reality of someone who was afraid someone else might read it and understand the truth.  This is the ultimate motive behind all book-banning and other kinds of information control:  that we must not be allowed to challenge the consensus reality.

For example, if one reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and thereby comes to realize, as Huck did, that Jim is just as worthy of his humanity as anyone, regardless of his skin color, what could this lead to?  Why, it could lead to one believing that no one is inherently any better than anyone else, regardless of their wealth, birth, politicial position or occupation.  No one.  Not law enforcement.  Not members of congress.  Not a priest or a pope or anyone else who has been artificially elevated above the rabble for so-called “religious” reasons.  No one.

What thoughts might an impressionable mind come to ponder upon reading Of Mice and Men?  That a killer like Lennie Small may not always be culpable?  That outright murder such as that of Lennie by George may actually be an act of mercy?  That things are not always what they seem to the average mob?

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

–John Steinbeck

To understand.  No matter what you read, read to understand.

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