Friday, September 23, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are?

            Yesterday a Massachusetts library lifted a ban which has existed since 1906 on a Mark Twain book, making two copies available for check out. Yes, book banning is still alive and well in America-- land of the superficially free. Each year the ALA lists the top 10 challenged books for that year. This year's books include the "normal" reactionary nonsense involving explicit language, realistically depicted sexuality, religious objections (like vampires), drug usage and one nonfiction book for "being inaccurate." Number one on 2011's list is And Tango Makes Three, a beautiful picture book inspired by the true events at New York's Central Park Zoo, where two male penguins shared the incubation of an egg together. That's right, the objectionable factor here is that it represents homosexuality and is offensive to religious values. No word yet as to whether anyone has told the actual penguins they're gay.
            As a former children's librarian I choose Banned Book Week each year to climb on my soapbox, but I am offended by all types of censorship, on the grounds of, "who do you think you are?" I live in a country which was founded by people seeking freedom from oppression; people who wanted to make personal choices for themselves and their families, so much so that they risked their lives in search of a place they could have that freedom. So important was this freedom, that it was number ONE on the list of things to protect when the constitution was written.
            The freedom of an individual to say something, despite the objection of another, is protected because it's important. No one has the right to silence the speech of another, because they don't approve of what is said, or disagree with the point of view. If I want to say the sky is purple, you can disagree with me, vehemently, but you cannot prohibit me from saying it, and more importantly, you cannot prohibit others from hearing it. My biggest objection to censorship is that those who advocate it don't just want to stop the speaker. They want to stop the listener. They want to prohibit my ability to hear an idea and make my own decision regarding its validity. If I don't want to hear something I can walk away, but to censor it means you want to control what *I* have access to hearing. And I have a problem with that. "Who do you think you are?"
            As a young reader, heck as an old reader, I have found myself in books. I have identified with a character or a feeling. This cathartic experience is why we read books, go to movies, and listen to music. But everyday someone is trying to stand between you and those experiences. Someone is saying that reading about a fourteen year old boy who masturbates will somehow damage other fourteen year old boys, (who by the way, are masturbating like fiends already!) Frankly, the real damage comes from not having these experiences, from feeling a disconnect with society in general. Fourteen year old boys who can't identify with their peers, who can't find themselves as a part of the world around them, who can't empathizes with others, are dangerous ugly creatures. "Who do you think you are?"
             One of the biggest tragedies that arises from censorship is that the creators of art, film, books, music, begin to censor themselves in order to avoid being a target of censorship. Everyday an author or a musician hits the backspace and erases an idea because they fear the backlash, the controversy. It's just easier to make everyone happy, right? It's just better to use this word instead of that one, or to give a character this quality instead of that one. But are we succeeding in erasing these words from the individual's mouth and mind; these characteristics from the lives of real people? No. We are just getting better at pretending we live in a Utopia where things we disagree with don't exist, remain hidden and feared. Of course the most ironic thing about this year's banned book list is the inclusion of Brave New World, an 80 year old book about a future  world where human beings are manufactured into lives that are predetermined and painless-- Complete conformity. "Who do you think you are?"
            Censorship is turning off the lights and pretending what we know exists in the darkness, isn't really there. Censorship is about fear and hate. Censorship is about negativity, close-mindedness, and immaturity. Censorship is not just sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming "LALALA."  It's about muting the voices of others, obscuring the ability of others to hear as well. 
 I know who you think you are!

            According to the ALA " Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week.  BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them." This year the number of books challenged more than doubled from 1990.          
          So, with that in mind I encourage you to read a banned book this week, and make an informed decision on its content for yourself (and yourself only.)  Take a look at the 100 most banned classics, or the top 100 challenged books from 1990-2000. You'll probably be shocked at what someone tried to prevent you from reading. You may even find one of your favorites.

  ( In addition to the books listed above, which received official challenges, imagine all the books that were just quietly removed from the shelves by someone with your best interest at heart, without any fanfare at all.)

How many have you already read?
Which one will you read this week?


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