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their right to have them), but I consider the Bible a dangerous fiction and would not want others to portray it as an historical document.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!