Why I Celebrate Banned Books Week
Why is it important to celebrate our freedom to read?
This post is a reflection of a week’s worth of thinking about what Banned Books Week signifies—not just for librarians, libraries, books, and reading, but what it should signify for all of us, readers and nonreaders alike.
And mea culpa for its length…feel free to take breaks, or just read what you want!
Banning: The Ultimate External Motivator for Reading!
Getting kids—and adults—to embrace reading as a recreational pastime is an ongoing challenge, especially when there are so many other demands and distractions on how we spend our time today, free or otherwise.
What I’ve always loved about Banned Books Week is how it incites people, particularly students, to read, even the ones who “hate reading.” A banned or challenged book already has a built-in hook to read it by basically saying, “Hey you—don’t read this, because someone else doesn’t want you to.”
If you’re not familiar with Banned Books Week, it’s an annual week-long event celebrated the last week of September, instituted in 1982 to embrace our freedom to read by highlighting books that have been challenged or banned in the last year and bringing them to the forefront as emblems of anti-censorship and free speech embodied in the First Amendment.
Most kids would probably love to have some books banned from their required reading, like The Scarlet Letter or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
But what if you said, “every book on this list is off limits, do not open these covers no matter what”—you instantly create the best external motivator for reading that would top any list on MindShift, TeachThought, or Edutopia.
Thinking back to the classics I read in high school, a few stand out to me—The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World, Animal Farm, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. Coincidentally, all of those titles have been challenged, censored, or even banned at one point or another.
In talking about challenged or banned books with students, they are almost always aghast at why a book would be challenged in the first place, especially one that they have read. They seem much more open to exploring the issues deemed questionable, compared to adults—probably due to the taboo subject nature of the challenges, but also because of the relevancy of what is deemed “objectionable” to their own lives, in most cases.
Fahrenheit 451: Looking Back to the Future
To get into the spirit of Banned Books Week this September, I decided to re-read Fahrenheit 451 after last reading it in high school. This time around, I was really struck by how timely the book’s message remains, despite being written over sixty years ago.
It’s a book that’s become emblematic of what this annual week-long celebration signifies—albeit with a strong dystopian slant—but nonetheless works as a vivid warning for why we need to remain free to read, to express, to think.
What makes it truly stand out as a timeless poster child for Banned Books Week is the multi-layered irony of its own story—the fact that a book specifically about censorship and book burning has been censored early on it its own history, and continues to be challenged—and censored—for various reasons. From 1967 to 1979, Fahrenheit 451’s then-publisher Ballantine only released a sterilized edition, deleting words such as “hell,” “damn,” and “abortion” in over 70 passages. After the censored version was brought to Bradbury’s attention by students reading the said censored version, Bradbury demanded the original version reissued; included in those and all following editions is the infamous coda in response to censorship that still resonates today.
Just in case it’s been as long as high school for you too since reading Fahrenheit 451, let me offer a little highlighted recap of the plot:
The book opens in a futuristic, totalitarian society where books are outlawed, considered illegal contraband; anyone found with them will have their house and all its contents burned. Firemen, like protagonist Guy Montag, are employed by this government to help keep the peace, maintain order and happiness among this society by burning any books found. The people in this society don’t go outside and experience nature, don’t have real conversations or think independently, and of course don’t read books. Rather, they spend time watching large TV-screens called “walls,” listen to the radio on earbuds called “Seashell Radio,” and view any discussion about books or their contents as not just illegal, but dangerous, “hated and feared” because they “show the pores in the face of life” rather than the “wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless” that the “comfortable people” want as a result of their blasé numbed state of contentment.
What I found the most interesting was the explanation by Montag’s boss Captain Beatty of how books devolved over time, and why they became something to burn instead of read, share and discuss. Supposedly, beginning with the early twentieth century, forms of media (television, film, radio) gained “mass” and began to dramatically influence how people spent their time; books initially still appealed to those who were “different,” but soon had to compete with other media, along with a growing love of sports and technology, the mind drinking “less and less.” As a result, books became “shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boiled down to the gags, the snap ending,” and any conveyance of information via media outlets acted like a centrifuge that “flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!” Sports became more popular as “super-super sports,” and life moved faster, with “highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere.”
As the pace of life sped up, interests and pastimes changed, and the population grew; so did minority groups with special interests—from “dog lovers” to “Texans”(!). These minorities claimed that the content in books was outdated and biased, infringed on their “toes”; in order to appease everyone and avoid controversy, magazines were blanded down into “vanilla tapioca,” and books watered down to “dishwater”; books stopped selling, publishers stopped printing, writers stopped writing. People stopped reading:
There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.
So here’s where the firemen came into the picture: After houses were finally “fireproofed completely,” the firemen “were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior: official censors, judges, executors.”
I know, right? Yes, it’s dystopian science fiction written during the McCarthy era. But still. Wow. But more on this later.
To ban or not to ban?
Each year the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles reports over the past year (May 2014 to March 2015) from libraries and schools concerning challenges and attempted bans and shares them via their annual Frequently Challenged and Banned Books list.
Most challenges and attempted bans are done under the premise of sheltering others, mostly younger readers, from “unorthodox” or “unpopular” opinions. It’s no surprise what gets a book on the hot list for potential banning within a school’s library, campus or district. The most common reasons for 2014-15’s list of books challenged or banned: Sex, sexuality, profanity, and racism. Violence and anti-religiousness are also reasons, as well as one that’s new to the list, but has evolved as of late in popular culture into a trending, useful way to make work, life, school easier and more productive—hacking.
In 2014, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother was cancelled as the pre-approved reading selection in a One School/One Book summer reading program “because it promoted hacker culture” and was challenged “‘because of its politics and its content.’” But the best rebuttal to this came from the author himself when he, in tandem with the publisher, gifted 200 copies directly to the students. Forget school hacking—read hacking is the new blacklist!
Despite this and other examples from this year’s list, most challenges do not result in bannings, and the majority of titles are reinstated and not restricted, according to the Office for Intellectual Freedom.
But Aren’t We Free Already?
So why do we still need to celebrate Banned Books Week? Haven’t we already won the battle against censorship? Haven’t the books won?
This was actually the central argument in this article I read recently among others about Banned Books Week. Yes, censorship in the U.S. is not a prevalent issue, and some might argue that we’ve won the battle already; that challenging a book is merely a natural step in raising valid points about a book’s relevance, appropriateness, and timeliness, especially in the context of exploring issues and ideas with students—and that if you do have a solid selection policy in place, logic will preside and access for all, instead of none, will prevail.
But current events as well as current challenges—and even actual bans—prove otherwise.
Just earlier this month, a Tennessee parent challenged The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on claims that it was “pornographic” in its description of how the book’s namesake checked her own cervix for a tumor with her finger, and wants the book banned in all Knoxville schools. This nonfiction book-turned-forthcoming-HBO movie is about an African American woman whose cells (known as HeLa cells) were taken from her without her knowledge before she died of cervical cancer, and “became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.” If there were any valid objections to make, it should be about the issues the book raises concerning the ethics of science versus entrenched racism and exploitation, rather than an argument of pornography versus anatomy.
Even New Zealand, a country that legalized same-sex marriage in back 2013 and now recognizes all animals as sentient beings, has just this month experienced an actual temporary book banning of the young adult novel Into the River; the book has won multiple awards and was written explicitly by teacher-author Ted Dawe to encourage his target audience—young working-class boys, “the dudes who don’t read”—to read. But in this case, the book was not challenged by a parent, but initially by the group Family First in 2013, which resulted in a review by New Zealand’s Censor Office, and a subsequent R14 restriction; now in reaction to the lifting of the restriction on August 11, New Zealand’s Film and Literature Board of Review imposed an actual ban on the title on September 3, with fines from NZ$3,000 (individual) to NZ$10,000 (business) for supplying the book to anyone who wants it.
The objections to the book are based on “obscene language” and its portrayals of sex and drug use—three things that for many working-class boys for whom the book was initially written actually make it worth reading, in addition to its depiction of bullying, racism and growing up in a pluralistic, yet biased society where resilience and grit are hard-learned survivalist traits rather than socio-emotional qualities developed via a discrete character education curriculum.
In this article by author Dawe, he describes how these culminating restrictions have taken his book from carrying the “sharp stink of authenticity” and being the most borrowed YA book (from libraries) to practically forgotten, not to mention inaccessible. The “whole circus” of events hasn’t ended yet; the ruling decision will be made in October.
Besides the eerie parallels to Fahrenheit 451 on more than one level , this case vividly demonstrates how dangerous assuming Intellectual Freedom trumps Censorship in this day and age. You know what happens when you assume something.
What about our freedom to read?
In looking at our freedoms as citizens globally and nationally, each country varies in its state of freedom. Here in the U.S., we are definitely living in a “free country,” in comparison to the rest of the world.
So which freedoms then are really under fire—and which are those we tend to take for granted and assume are non-issues? Are other freedoms overshadowing the fundamental freedom to read freely?
Embodied in the First Amendment, we in theory enjoy multiple freedoms—freedom of religion, freedom speech and of the press, freedom of assembly, and the freedom to petition.
Besides the freedom to vote and elect our own leaders, to access information online and enjoy (or lament) a free press and media, and even enjoy the luxury of a robust social media that isn’t censored, per se (unless by its own peers), we also have the freedom to speak our minds, to say what we want to say, and to read what we want to read.
One of the arguments on why we must celebrate our freedom to read freely, not just fight censorship, is to avoid taking “this precious freedom for granted.”
Although we do live in a pluralistic society that allows the expression of ideas through print and other media, younger members of this society don’t always embrace this right to read these ideas freely. But I would venture to say that it’s not just a right the young take for granted, either.
Maybe we do take certain basic freedoms as U.S. citizens for granted—for example, education. Despite hot-button issues like funding, staffing, equity and standardized testing, it’s a given that we have schools for students to attend. We have Malala Yousafzai to thank (among others) for reminding us that the right to education is not a given everywhere, for everyone; even though it’s not a perfect system, it’s invaluably better than none.
In theory, remembering the past is one way to appreciate and protect the present, and this applies to the seemingly fundamental rights we currently have. Just as with the Holocaust, American Slavery, 9/11 and other key events in our global biographical history, we remember so we “never forget,” and thus hopefully “never again” repeat the same mistakes (or horrors). But we all know that there’s a grain of truth to the saying “History repeats itself,” albeit not necessarily in the same exact way, but in similar patterns and echoes. In light of the current refugee crisis in Europe, for example, recent past, current and most likely future events will come to pass that act as reminders that we can never necessarily be safe or complacent in assuming what we had one day will be there tomorrow.
Then again, history does not repeat itself exactly—everything is a game of causality, one event influencing another, as does one person influence another, one book influence another, one idea influence another…and so on, and so on, and so on. The trigger or tipping point could be obvious or transparent, innocuous or viral, cumulative or singular, caused intentionally, or a reflection of a shifting collective consciousness.
Is it censorship or something else?
Whether it’s a dance of causality or of repetition, what is it ultimately about, though, when it comes to discussing censorship? The examples included in this post illustrate why we do still need to fight the good fight against censorship, even though we live in a “free country.”
In looking at what’s behind the terms “protection” and “appropriateness,” there’s another layer of irony in all of this too. What’s the basic argument in sheltering others, particularly younger readers, from objectionable content? Because…they’re not ready for it, it’s not appropriate to discuss within a school environment, or it’s just plain “offensive” or “too explicit”?
If books are a perfect platform for engaging in the “marketplace of ideas,” it also follows that books are safe places to explore, discuss, and debate these ideas, a lot safer than the real world, simply because they are not ultimately real, even if they portray real people, real events, real issues. Books are like the ultimate troubleshooting/training manual for experiencing and reflecting on life without getting hurt; a “learning laboratory”—Intellectual Boot Camp.
In thinking on the “freedom to read freely”—it would then follow that readers should be allowed to read what they want, and choose books that suit them; if the reader is not yet a consenting adult, then the choosing and approval of what is read creates a perfect opportunity for collaborative selection and exploration of ideas between that reader and her parent.
But what I keep going back to in my mind is another facet in this discussion about censorship—its impact on how we define and maintain our Intellectual Freedom. Another underlying motivator for celebrating Banned Books Week for me connects to why books lost their value in Fahrenheit 451. It wasn’t because of censorship, but something much more subtle and invisible.
As for our current state of Intellectual Freedom, what is really under threat? Attempts to “remove or restrict materials” due to the pressures of conformity, and the impact the “shadow of fear” then has on future expression? Or a shift in priorities for our time, so that books have less value to us?
In Fahrenheit 451, I was riveted when Captain Beatty reveals to Montag how books became the enemy simply because people stopped valuing them as a “marketplace of ideas.” The books were not burned by censors—the firemen—until after they had become useless to society; the government saw an opportunity to maintain a de-intellectualized populace and then fostered the notion that any books discovered were the enemy to their way of thought, which at that point was a state of non-thought; no thinking equals “peace of mind,” and therefore a populace “happy all the time,” free from the “slippery stuff” and other “unnecessary time-wasting thought!”
What is really at question here is not whether or not we should question a book’s content or purpose; it’s really about how a lack of questions about these questions themselves can be what leads to our own loss of intellectual freedom. Maybe overt gestures are not always what we should fear.
When Guy Montag realizes that “something’s missing,” the “only thing [he] positively knew was gone was the books.” He seeks to find out more about them in order to attempt to regain or discover some kind of thought of his own through reading the thoughts of others in books.
As in Fahrenheit 451, maybe the danger isn’t that someone is keeping the books from us, but that we keep the books from ourselves via excuses that reading isn’t integral to what makes us an informed, educated, and “free” pluralistic society.
What can be more insidious is the slow disintegration of concern for something as simple as reading what we want because we can, in spite of other enticing distractions that vivisect our time—to the point of making us think that we don’t read simply because we don’t have the time, versus because we have written it out of our lives entirely.
And if we are reading, is it the same type of reading? Are we reading “tapioca” or “dishwater,” or something that has “pores” and “bothers” us? Can we and should we read both? Is that the secret to maintaining equilibrium between our individual dictates and personal proclivities for how we “spend” our precious resource of time?
I see this in education, with the advent of pressures to address inumerous standards and prepare for standardized tests to measure reading ability and comprehension, but do not allow for the pleasures of nor demand routine deep reading as something we need to and should do.
Nicholas Carr delves into his own devolutionary experiences with reading in his book The Shallows, and Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid also examines the challenges our brains face today when reading in a technology-driven world.
Yet, we are still reading, and continue to read books that keep us awake, even when others say we shouldn’t be reading them at all. According to studies such as this one, we aren’t reading less per se, just differently via the advent of digital texts and e-reading devices. But the jury is still out on whether we are reading to the same level through these types of texts and devices—and if there are any adverse effects of this digital shift. Maybe what’s also critical now is learning how to read differently in order to keep reading alive.
Besides creating instant extrinsic-turned-intrinsic motivation for reading, Banned Books Week also acts as a reminder that complacency and inaction is as dangerous as challenging, censoring, and banning. We don’t want to take our freedom to read freely for granted, for the simple fact that we don’t want to take our freedom to read for granted, and simply forget to read because we have so many other demands on our own time.
Maybe we need to celebrate Banned Books Week just to make sure we are still aware that nothing is a given, even in light of technological progress and other global advances that envelope us in our flat-world lives.
Don’t worry, I know we are not living in an idiocracy, and we aren’t at the point of getting law degrees at Costco, and I’m certainly not advocating a fear-monger stance about what the future bodes for us based on our current behavior; rather I prefer to remain an intelligent optimist about the future of reading and how it shapes us.
Reading…it does a mindset good.
The act of reading inherently fosters a growth mindset while providing so many other benefits that we may or may not fully realize. Although readers differ in every which way—each reader can change and grow through the experience of reading a book. Just as a person’s “true potential is unknown (and unknowable),” so is the true potential impact a book can have on a reader—which is essentially a good thing, yes??
Besides the obvious benefits to reading, it helps us exercise our rights to access ideas, and be bothered by them in order to grow.
Yes, reading does make us nicer and smarter, reading can develop empathy, and reading helps identify us as human. But reading also does something else. Reading can blow and rebuild our mind; reading can help us become our own phoenixes.
As with Montag, reading changes us for the better, in spite of ourselves.
Banned Books Week should not just incite you to read a banned book, or to challenge a challenge. It should also incite you to read. period.
Some Parting Thoughts about BBW
So how can we celebrate our freedom to read beyond Banned Books Week each September?
A few ideas…
- Encourage a love of reading in yourself by seeing it as a right versus a requirement or indulgence
- Read or re-read a memorable classic, childhood favorite, or newbie title from one of the BBW lists, such as the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books by Decade or the Top 10 Frequently Challenged Books; challenge yourself to see why it’s been challenged or banned and reflect on your conclusions
- Read something that challenges you, that bothers you
- Think about how we censor ourselves and our own time to read
- Be an odd duck—ask questions–about what you read, what you hear, what you see, what you think
- Ask others about what they are reading, and share what you’re reading!