Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Boldly Celebrating the Freedom to Read: Banned Books Week

I think over time, I have read a fair number of banned or challenged books. This week is Banned Books Week, which prompts me to think a little about this. Some of those books I read intentionally, much like a child does something because they are told not to do it. So, I do it anyhow and read the book anyways. A few others I have read without knowing they had been banned or challenged somewhere. There are many books and many more ideas out there waiting to be written (or expressed in other media). Some place, someone will likely find something offensive or disagree with it, and that is fine in a diverse and free society. But when they seek to deprive others of books and ideas just because they disagree, it becomes censorship. At that point, it needs to be denounced.

I proudly proclaim that I read banned books. As the saying goes, I make no bones about it. But to me at least, it is more than just trying to sound smart (or "smart-alecky"). I cannot imagine myself not being able to read what I want. I cannot imagine myself not being able to learn from books (or other media. Movies get challenged too, you know?). I cannot imagine myself not being able to explore ideas, to educate myself, to be informed, and to make up my mind through reading. Yet there are certain arrogant people who would take this and more from me. There are certain people who feel threatened by knowledge and ideas, folks who would prefer the darkness of ignorance lest their poor ideas and oppressive ways be exposed. These are the censors who think they can hold on to power by trying to suppress knowledge and ideas. I always go back to words I heard in my youth: a free person is one willing to read anything. It is not just reading anything. It is being willing to do so.

Maybe, and bear with me here a moment, just maybe, the censor has it easy. The censor can burn and destroy anything that is unpleasant or offensive. It is easy to do this; it is easy to live in a bubble where everything is comforting and conforming. It is easy to remain in the coccoon of safe ideas, but it is also the way of the coward. It is the way of the unimaginative; it is the way of the oppressor who in the end will become stagnant. But it is an easy way.

However, those who are willing to read freely are the ones facing the challenge. True, they face the challenge of the censor that would take away their freedom if allowed. This is the challenge that we raise awareness for this week. But I suggest that free readers face another challenge. It is a challenge that is much greater than any the censor could implement. It is the challenge the reader may face when he or she opens a new book. It is the challenge of new ideas. It is the challenge of learning new things. It is the challenge of making meaning of the world. It is the challenge that a book (or other media) might persuade us to see the world differently. We may find our deeply held beliefs and values challenged and confronted. We could end up questioning ourselves. We might agree with what we read, or we might disagree. Even more, we could even decide to change our views or embrace new ideas and values based on what we read. This is why I say free readers are the ones facing the challenge of reading freely. It is clear to see that this powerful and life-affirming experience scares the living daylights out of censors. They are not up to the challenge; they take the coward's way out. Free readers are willing to face this and other possibilities when they open a book. They risk being challenged, questioned, provoked. This is not easy. It is not easy to confront new ideas and maybe decide to to change or modify your views, or leave your views as they are. That is what free readers do, and I say it should be my choice and the choice of other readers to face such challenges. Free people should not allow small cowards to take away the opportunities to learn and grow. Free people should confront such cowards, not with violence, but with better ideas. Or such cowards should be relegated to the dust heap of ignorance while the rest of us boldly move ahead.

I could post a lot of quotes about censorship and books, but folks who are more eloquent than I could ever hope to be are out there. Go and find them in books, on the internet, on other resources.

As Banned Books Week comes around one more time, I celebrate it by telling others that yes, I am free because I willing to read anything. I am affirming my commitment to learning, to discovering new ideas, and to embrace new ways of thinking if need be. As Banned Books Week comes and goes, I ask other readers, are you willing to be challenged? I ask writers and creators of ideas, are you willing to challenge us readers? Or will we allow the cowards to extinguish the lights that dispel the darkness of ignorance? How will you celebrated the freedom to read, not just this week, but every day?

Some resources for Banned Books Week and on censorship:

American Library Association's page on Banned Books Week. The ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom also has various resources for dealing with challenges and reporting them. You can look it up from the link.

American Bookseller's Foundation for Free Expression's page for Banned Books Week.

National Council of Teachers of English page on censorship. The NCTE is also a good resource to help in facing challenges, especially for teachers.

Update note (10/04/2005): Here is another great example of a reader celebrating her freedom to read and doing her best to stamp out censorship and ignorance. Nadia, of the late blog Kinky Librarian, does a guest post over at pantiespantiespanties. She writes, for one, "in a free and democratic society we need to have free access to materials - good bad, and indifferent - so that we may all choose to read what we'd like." The usual caveats of "it may not be safe to view at your workplace" or "not for the easily offended" apply. However, if you are like me and willing to just dive in, go read some more food for thought.

Update note (11/09/2005): Here is yet another example of someone advocating the freedom to read. This one takes the form of a letter to intolerant people written by a teacher in public schools. It is a bit strong, so for readers who are sensitive, be advised. Having said that, this letter is the type I would like to write to some people at times.


Mark said...

This post was a Ringmaster's (Editor's) Choice for the Carnival of the Infosciences #9 which can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/8vwu9

Norma said...

These books have been challenged, some for falsification of data, not banned. Have you ever successfully gotten a library to withdraw a book due to a complaint? Doesn't happen in the 21st century.

The real banning happens in the back room when the orders are placed. Librarians are 223:1 liberal to conservative and can always find a good professional reason not to buy a conservative political title or a Christian title.

My community has an outstanding public library, but the collection certainly doesn't reflect the attitudes, religions and values of the community it serves.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

I personally don't go around trying to get books withdrawn from libraries because I disagree with the content or think it objectionable. A library should be a place where all views are represented. Is it a perfect process? No, it is not. As you point out, librarians do a lot of work in the tech services areas (what you call the back room). They are human beings like everyone one, but they don't have some evil cabal in the back room to just provide certain books. As for challenges and bans, they do happen in various forms. Add to it the fact that the climate for intellectual freedom can be made so hostile by certain elements of society often amounts to an effective banning of materials. To "ban" a book does not just mean it got removed. If intellectual freedom is persecuted to the point that creative people would rather not risk expression, that is just as bad, if not worse. As for specific examples, this country has a history of banning books in a variety of contexts. Here is a list of instances of bans and challenges (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/banned-books.html), some of them in the actual 20th and going into the 21st century. You can also take a look at a little more history here (http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/speech/libraries/topic.aspx?topic=banned_books).

As for your public library, I am glad it has as you describe an outstanding status. Not all communities can say such. If it is as good as you describe, they likely have a process in place for appeals and challenges. You should make use of such process if you really believe the library does not reflect the values of your community. In fact, the whole community should be doing so if they believe that is the case. At the end of the day, it has nothing to do with the politics of librarians (again, I am not implying librarians are all apolitica. Like the rest of the world, some are more political than others). Overall, we simply believe in preserving intellectual freedom and making sure _all_ voices are heard, even the one we may disagree with. As for the political ratio of librarians, it possibly does lean to the liberal side (I am pretty apolitical myself in the sense I could care less for the game of politics. Does not mean I don't care about my community and world). There are some conservative librarians out there, and you can visit their blogs as well to see 1 part out of the 223 (would love to know where you got that little number). Two of them are the Conservator (http://conservatorblog.com/) and Mr. Greg McClay (http://www.shush.ws/). Thanks for stopping by and best.