Banned Books – An Emotive Issue

I’ve been working on a project library on LibraryThing with some other members, Banned Books Library, which aims to catalogue as many banned publications, past and present, worldwide as possible.  It’s been an educational experience thus far for me.  What has surprised me more than anything is that there seems to be a strong contemporary history of challenge within the USA, whereas for the UK, for example, much of the information is historical.  I wondered why, in this modern age in a country that is vociferous about it’s love of freedom (hello, anyone remember the ‘Freedom Fries’?), there is a vocal demographic that find literary censorship so acceptable.

Often I know, these challenges come from parents who want books removed from libraries and schools.  It left me wondering, as a parent myself, where I stand on the whole issue of literary freedom and availability to youngsters.  I can safely say that my parents never forbade me from reading anything I was interested in and I hope I can maintain that principle with my own daughter.  It’s hard, I know, when children become independent entities in the world – you cannot control absolutely the external influences and opinions that your children will be exposed to.  However, neither, in my opinion, should you.  I’m fully aware that my issues would be different ones to the majority of parents in the US challenging books.  I would have a problem with my child being exposed to any kind of religious literature if it was presented as fact – I’m happy for her to explore religions (well, maybe not happy, but I accept that she must understand about the beliefs of others, it’s the first step to respecting their right to have them), but I consider the Bible a dangerous fiction and would not want others to portray it as an historical document.  I have no intention of policing age-appropriateness of what she reads, but would probably not suggest myself that she picks up something with extremely adult themes before she is older.  That said, if she does, I wouldn’t just take it away.  I may suggest something that she would enjoy more and I’m hoping that growing up in a house choc-full of books, as I myself did, she will come to more adult material as she is ready for it.  I was always kept occupied by the wealth of books that were in my house, there wasn’t enough time for all of them so I rarely strayed into inappropriate ground.  These are my own, personal views.  I would never tell someone else how they should police and raise their own children.  That is one of the reasons why I find parents who challenge books irritating.  If you don’t want your child to read Harry Potter, don’t let them but please don’t try and force institutions into removing them from the shelves where my child can access them – I would never ask a public library to restrict access to their bibles.  For me, the crux is that I want my child to grow into an independent and thoughtful person, she doesn’t always have to agree with me, but I think you instill your own values in children as you raise them and must trust in them to find their own paths.

‘What’s the harm in banning a book?’  I’ve actually heard people say that, alongside others that find some banning acceptable (‘Well, Harry Potter’s ridiculous, but I can understand why they’ve removed that gay sex book’).  Banning books at all is a slippery slope.  If you look at the recent lists of banned and challenged books, many are challenged for religious reasons (often cited as promoting witchcraft or being anti-religion).  The same parents that find Philip Pullman’s books so offensive or that object to Harry Potter haven’t also requested that ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ be removed – obviously when it is a Christian allegory it’s OK.  If it questions that, best get it out of the clutches of our impressionable youth.  It appears all religions are not equal in all cases.  So, where do we draw the line.  It’s obviously one opinion pitted against another.  Who is qualified to mark the arbitrary point where something becomes unacceptable?

Many other books are challenged because they have content which touches on homosexuality, something a certain demographic doesn’t like.  To challenge and remove these books elevates a section of our society at the expense of marginalising another – it sends a message that it’s acceptable to attach value judgements to who people are.  That is as daft as saying we’re going to remove any books that have references to people who are not blond-haired and blue-eyed as they are the chosen few (hmm, I wonder which historical period decided that blond hair and blue-eyes denoted superiority ….).  What struck me as I catalogued past banning was how ridiculous some of the reasons seemed in the present day, how ignorant and outdated – surely people will look back at this period with similar scorn a 100 years in the future.  Another reason cited was that of racism, especially appended to books which dealt with or were written in a period of time when there were issues of slavery and race-discrimination.  Surely it is more educational to teach these books (some of which are great members of the literary canon) in the context of the political and social arena they were published into and born from?

Essentially for me, freedom of speech and ideas is a cornerstone of our society and to give away any of it, even by increments, begins the slide to restriction that more abhorrent political regimes have gone down before us (check out the amount of banning that took place in countries such as South Africa and Russia in the past).  I am a reader, I love books so they, for me, are the ultimate symbol of my freedom to think, learn and debate.  Take away books (and other forms of writing) and people have to physically come in contact with someone to exchange ideas.  I don’t always agree with what I read, but I want the ability to read it.  Take that away from me and I am intellectually crippled to a degree.  As I said in the title, an emotive issue.  Whatever your stance on it, I can recommend that you check out the Banned Books Library on LibraryThing, it’s a work-in-progress but a very educational one!

E-Books, E-Readers, Kindles and the like …

So, it being Monday and me having nothing better to occupy my mind … I was considering the whole Kindle issue.  Let’s contextualise this a bit first – I’m an iPod freak.  I never leave home without it and the more songs I can cram onto it the better!  I have bought music online in digital format and I listen to my CDs more on the pod than I do on the stereo.  I love having my music library to browse through wherever I am.  So, I find I’m asking why am I not so excited about the advent of a digital age for books?  Thus far, I’ve come up with several potential reasons for this.  Primarily, I love books – not the words inside them, but the physical books.  I fondle books and I smell books.  I get excited (in a geeky way) about the quality of paper and the type of font.  But why should this put me off ebook readers?  My husband has an equally geeky attachment to CDs but as soon as he gets a new one, it gets grabbed and stacked onto the pod.  What about the experience of reading?  Definitely that’s part of it, I like holding a book and I love bookmarks.  However, the Kindle age would mean that I wouldn’t need to carry a backpack full of them around, I could take an e-reader on the daily commute and save the shoulder muscles.  Why, then, am I not rushing out to Kindle-ise my life?  I’ve come to the conclusion the flaw is in the essential difference between books and CDs in the digital age.  I have 1000+ books and we have 1000+ CDs.  When I got my first iPod, I spent an enjoyable weekend grabbing all my CDs and installing my music collection on the little beauty.  How would I spend the first weekend with a Kindle?  Well, I guess that would be sitting on Amazon spending money I didn’t have, buying books I already own in digital format.  This would never work for me.  My iPod is an addition to my music collection – I can still own the physical CDs.  With Kindles and the like, I have to make a choice – be digital or paper or I have to buy books twice.  I can’t spend a weekend grabbing my library, it doesn’t work that way.  I can’t enjoy reading the original copy of a book and use the Kindle for my long distance travel or weeks away.  The difference in media, music vs words, means that it will never be practical to grab your book collection.  This is why I’ll never be a Kindle convert.  What about the rest of you out there?

The Writer’s Table: Influences and Recommendations

Waterstones have come up with a canny and interesting marketing ploy.  They have started asking well-known authors to list 40 books that influenced them or that they recommend and are listing them individually on their website.  In The Independent books supplement on Friday, Boyd Tonkin addresses Philip Pullman’s selection.  His article has an interesting slant – that of the impairment of literay innovation by the current trend towards a reading monoculture that is based around middle-of-the-road fiction and biography.  The implication is that there is a shallowness to the modern reader (as a generalisation), who rarely steps beyond the star names.

While I’m aware that it is total generalisation, I have to say that to a degree I think he has a point.  Certainly the readers that I interact with on-line are exceptions to that rule but they, for the most part, are a rare breed of passionate bibliophiles who gravitate from their corners of the globe to literary hubs online such as LibraryThing or groups of book blogs.  On a day-to-day basis, I often find resistance amongst people to ‘trying something new’ and on more than one occasion, on recommending a classic or challenging read, I’ve had the reply (or a paraphrase of) “Life’s to short to read books like that!”.  It’s odd, because for me, life’s too short not to!  How will I ever read all the books I want to before I shuffle off this mortal coil, especially with new books appearing each year?  I certainly find that the good finds in the large book multiples like Waterstones or Borders are often hidden away in the back shelves, the book piles on prime display bearing a disturbing similarity to each other whichever chain you visit.  I know for a fact that some people don’t step beyond the central pedestals when browsing.

So, does this affect literary originality and innovation?  Whatever the root cause, be it selective marketing or selective reading, I would say that it does.  How often do you see a best seller followed by a swathe of clones or also-rans?  When publishers identify a market niche that is selling well, it’s quickly filled by all manner of versions of what is essentially the same premise.  But is this a bad thing?  I find myself questioning whether authors who fill these niches would be the authors who contributed with great originality an innovative piece to the literary canon.  For all of the clones and substandard versions of hackneyed themes, there is always the odd gem.  The odd literary marvel.  These are rare but then so are brilliant writers.  I tend to think that these brilliant writers rise up above the ‘unfertile ground’ and would whatever the tendencies of the readership.  We have such a volume of work on the market now that we have come, possibly, to expect excellence at every turn.  When that isn’t the case, we look to the authors, the readers and the sales outlets to cast blame.  Is it possible that excellence can and should be rare?

LibraryThing Changed My Life! – Adventures in Reading in a Cyber Age

LibraryThing changed my life! I wonder how many bibliophiles can honestly say that. It’s certainly true for me.

I’ve always been an avid reader. I remember very clearly the moment when reading ‘clicked’ with me as a child. All of a sudden the jumbles of letters meant something! I can quite clearly remember my juvenile epiphany on a car journey to my grandma’s house, I couldn’t not read things anymore – when I saw a sign, I read the name.  No matter how I looked, I couldn’t go back to the moment when the sign meant nothing to me.  I had to read it!  Being obtuse and obsessive, I took that to heart and haven’t been seen without my nose in a book since.

I clearly remember my first ‘grown up’ book, the first one that I actually owned, a paperback copy of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ that my parents brought back for me from a shopping expedition.  I remember running to the car (followed by my duck Lucky – Lucky by name, lucky by nature … well, until my impatient neighbour ran him over because he was shorter than a goose … but that’s a whole other story!).  I grabbed the book and retreated to a world a million miles away, contained in the pages I held, one that I’ve never fully returned from.  A few chapters into the book, I remember my dad pointing out “You can read in your head, you know”.  To his relief, it dawned on me that I could.  Epiphany number 2 – the world that is created inside your head doesn’t have to be shared with the outside, it’s yours!  (Also that there are limits to parental patience … but that one was less important.)

Fast forward a decade or two (OK, or three, but we’ll gloss over that part).  In the whirlwind of time, we flash past avenues of books … also some more ducks, the same geese and the odd one-legged chicken … rabbits, hamsters, cats, thousands of fruitflies, snails and axolotls … a couple of degrees but only one graduation ceremony … and we return to almost the present day.  The older we get, the busier life gets.  Having removed myself from my English literature degree because it was destroying my love of reading and didn’t live up to my expectations of shared literary experience and stimulating debate, I was still an avid reader and had fallen back on my family to listen to my recommendations and curses regarding the quality of literary masterpieces.  Bless ’em, long suffering though they are, but fully satisfying it wasn’t.  I tried book groups but they just weren’t serious enough for me.  I wanted to talk to people who read as voraciously as I do and who were equally opinionated.  Life also has a funny way of intruding on your reading time.  My habits were often lazy – it’s easier to pick up a sci-fi book than a classic at the end of the working day, and so simple to leave unfinished a challenging tome with the excuse of a work-wearied mind and the easy distraction of television.  I had kept blogs for my own writing but they’d dropped by the wayside, time-consuming in the face of more mentally sedentary pursuits.  One day, whilst browsing my husband’s computer magazines, I came across an article that pretty much described LibraryThing as the second coming for book lovers.  A book cataloguing site … hmmm … second only to my love of books is my love of lists … there might be something in this LibraryThing lark.  So, I jumped down the rabbit hole and I’ve never looked back.  Epiphany 3 – LibraryThing.

First off, my obsessive tendencies were gently massaged by the cataloguing side of the site.  Initially, it became a matter of honour to include all my books on that list (still working on that one …).  Then, as I became more LT savvy, I realised the full potential of tagging – my first efforts were woefully incomplete, it’s now a challenge I’m approaching in a more head-on and systematic manner, but even my proto-tags added so much to my ‘bookish’ experience.  I could browse my library anywhere, no longer did I have to resort to sitting in the middle of the study floor smiling in a slightly psychotic manner at the bookshelves arranged in my perfect order – I had tags, and my husband couldn’t mess them up to play with my mind!  This pretty much absorbed my first year on LT.  I was already an addict – no gateway drug necessary, straight to the hard stuff!  Then I ventured into ‘Talk’ … drawn in by the ’50 Book Challenge’ group (incorporating books, a list of some kind and a challenge … what’s not to love?).  I was undone!  Suddenly I’d found a vibrant community of book-lovers, empassioned debates, recommendations, scholarly commentaries, an ER programme … everything that had been missing from my undergrad experience.  I had found my spiritual web-home.

LibraryThing has enriched my day-to-day life.  I couldn’t honestly say that if all it did was provide me with another technological distraction.  It’s much more than that.  Now I discuss, debate, blog and review.  All of that is secondary, however, to the fact that what I do now is read more voraciously than ever before.  When I was at uni studying English, one of the reasons I left was that I had stopped reading for pleasure.  LT has had the opposite effect.  I’m reading more now than at any other time.  I actively turn off the television once my husband has left the room and pick up a book instead.  I think about what I read and try to complete challenges like the ‘888 Challenge’ (8 books in 8 different categories in a year) and I read books that had never occurred to me as a result of recommendations and the LT Early Reviewer programme.  I review too, which makes me read in a more thoughtful way.  Most of all, I know that I’m not alone out there in my book-obsessed ways.

So, I want to shout very loudly, “Thanks LT!”.