“Any book worth banning is a book worth reading.”Isaac Asimov
Of all the people who have spoken about censorship, Isaac Asimov is the author whose response most accurately reflects my own attitude toward banning books. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought books simply because someone else told me not to read them. The Harry Potter series, The Giver, Lord of the Flies, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 1984…all of these were books that I sought out simply because someone else told me that they were things I shouldn’t read.
Today officially marks the beginning of Banned Books Week. If you’re not already familiar with it, Banned Books Week is a yearly event that calls our attention to acts of censorship and the importance of intellectual freedom. According to the Banned Books Week website, this event has been around since 1982. There are a tremendous number of activities that take place during Banned Books Week in schools and libraries across the country.
While Banned Books Week itself has only been around a few years longer than me, the act of challenging/banning books is nothing new, and it has actually been known to escalate to the burning of books. This ultimate act of censorship not only destroys the physical book, but also the knowledge and ideas contained within those books.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, located in Washington, D.C., has included a video on their website (which you can view here) that discusses the burning of books by the Nazis, as well as the practice of rising totalitarian regimes taking control of society’s access to information. In the video, literary critic Ruth Franklin says the following: “Really, all literature is dangerous to a regime that fears the free flow of ideas, because the literature in its own fundamental way is meant to forge connections among human beings.”
And that’s what great literature does! In The Little Book of Lykke, one of Meik Wiking’s tips for creating happiness involves reading. He suggests the following: “Put yourself in the shoes of others and pick up some literary fiction. Go for books like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, or The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.” What’s interesting is that each of these books were included on the NCTE’s list of titles that were challenged between 2002 and 2018. If books like these allow us to connect with other people, something which would be healthy and increase our happiness, why are they being challenged and banned?
While the Nazis might provide the most well-known example of book burning, it might interest you to know that censorship through the destruction of literature not only predates those burnings, but has continued in the 2010s. In Lily Rothman’s 2018 Time article, titled The Real History Behind Book Burning and Fahrenheit 451, Rothman references two recent burnings of a library and library books in 2013 and 2015 that she refers to as a “show of both ideological and territorial conquest.”
People have attempted to remove books from schools and libraries for a long time, and for a number of reasons, including: language, violence, sexual references and situations, stereotyping, inclusion of LGBTQIA+ characters, religious perspectives, and political opinions.
Having been in education for more than ten years, I’ve met a lot of parents who have had questions about the content of the literature that I taught in my classroom. Some wanted to know what conversations they might find themselves having with their child about their reading material, while others wanted to make sure that their kids weren’t reading anything that the parent perceived as being “bad.” And I was always honest with those parents. While some of the books we read in my classroom included things like strong language or uncomfortable topics, the messages of these books were important. As were the conversations that arose in the classroom because of these books.
Here’s the thing… In my thirty-four years on this planet, I’ve done a tremendous amount of reading. There have been books that I’ve loved, and some that I’ve put down halfway through because I found them boring. Of all the books I’ve read, the ones that were (and still are) most important to me are the ones that challenged me in some way…because those are the books that made me a better person.
While there’s nothing wrong with voicing your opinions about a book, I don’t believe that we have the right to refuse others their opportunity to obtain the knowledge and ideas contained within that book. As Mark Twain so aptly said…
“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”Mark Twain
So I propose the following challenge for this week. Take some time to educate yourself about modern-day censorship and its effects on society. Look for examples of censorship (or attempted censorship) happening right now in your community. Watch the video I referenced earlier in this post. Read a challenged or banned book, or revisit a title that made you feel uncomfortable, and take time to think about the reasons why that book might be important to society. Or, if you’re a little more technologically savvy than me, you can even film yourself reading a banned book out loud as part of the Virtual Read-Out.
Throughout this week on The Unapologetic Bookworm, I’ll be taking a look at some of my favorite books that have been challenged or banned within the past two decades. I’ll spend some time talking about the reasons people gave in favor of banning these books, and also discuss the benefits of reading each piece of literature. I hope you’ll hang around and spend Banned Books Week with me.