Monday, September 19, 2011

Sensible or censorship?

Once in elementary school, I checked out a book of cartoons that was in the children's section of the public library. Turns out most of the cartoons had sexual content, and the book belonged in the adult section. My brother and I were thrilled to have such racy material in hand. My dad was livid. When he talked to the librarian, she moved the material to a different part of the library, which was absolutely a common-sense move. My brother and I were livid.

Later, I had a tee shirt that read, "Celebrate Banned Books." It listed books that had been outright banned or challenged, and some of my favorite books were listed. Fahrenheit 451 was among them, and I'm pretty certain that was what prompted me to make that purchase. I had also recently arrived in the big city of Denton, Texas, and I felt like a socially-conscious rebel every time I wore it.

Banned Books Week this year starts Saturday, Sept. 24. I know that not everyone agrees with ALA's stance on challenged books no matter the setting, so perhaps a change in thinking is in order.

I agree that lots of challenged books may not belong on the children's shelves and that challenged-book lists are rife with items that may be inappropriately shelved or just don't belong in a particular community. However, many challenges seem to have stemmed from people who act as thought police or political correctness enforcers, and those are the challenges that are most problematic here in the States.

Books including Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are classics because they address the human condition, yet people continue to challenge them based on a historically-correct portrayal of people using racial slurs. Is it uncomfortable that there were slaves in the U.S.? Is it uncomfortable that people used and continue to use racial slurs in everyday conversation? Yes it is, but these books are a window into other times and places where both were common. The books are not gross in their portrayals and deal quite humanly with their characters. Would you have them taken out of libraries without some sort of sensible discussion?

Whether people believe the ALA’s Banned Book Week is propaganda or not, it certainly gets people talking. In the least, we can use this week to recognize that we are extremely lucky to live in a place where freedom of thought and the freedom to explore ideas is an underpinning of our national philosophy. Perhaps we don’t need to publicize every hamlet where a book challenge is taking place; perhaps we can use a little common sense when trying to determine what is too sexually explicit or violent for our children. But let’s continue to put forth the idea that a democratic nation requires free speech and a well-read citizenry.

Twenty years have passed since that tee shirt purchase, but I would still wear it.

Happy reading,

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