To ban a book is to ban an idea. Some ideas are good; some are bad. But good and bad are judgments each of us must be free to make — and learn to make.
At S&R — as do so many people in diverse media everywhere — we discuss ideas and express our opinions about them. We try to not suppress the ideas with which we disagree. Rather, we point out what we see as flaws and attempt to persuade others by providing better ideas.
The current flap diverting our attention from more pressing matters involves “The Golden Compass,” a movie derived from the first book in a trilogy called “His Dark Materials” written by Philip Pullman. His novels and the movie (review) have irritated the Catholic Church, which alleges a secularist agenda and fears the film would drive children toward Pullman’s books.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which has published a 23-page denunciation of the film, says:
The Catholic League wants Christians to stay away from this movie precisely because it knows that the film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may be impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present. And no parent who wants to bring their children up in the faith will want any part of these books. [emphasis added]
A priest in Buffalo, N.Y., “explained that Pullman’s books were not ‘a responsible use of freedom of speech’ because of their outward disdain for Christianity,” reported The Buffalo News.
Responsibility should not be the principal test of ideas. Nor should profanity, obscenity, sexual content and “age inappropriateness” — the usual suspects put forward by those who would ban a book and its ideas.
“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
In 1981, while in the news biz, I wrote an editorial (some of which has been adapted for this post) opposing an attempt to ban Solzhenitsyn’s work from a local high school. Critics objected to the book’s profanity: hell, damn, bastard, son of a bitch. Such language seems so tame these days — especially after the 2001 episode of “South Park” in which shit was uttered 162 times. Popular music, too, has turned to the profane. Remember Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center?
“Ulysses” by James Joyce
“Catcher in the Rye” by J.L. Salinger
Profanity has expanded the language. It may be distasteful to some who would ban books on that basis — but a popular culture surrounds young people for whom such language is the means to fully and concisely codify their existence and their struggles.
Obscenity and profanity offend many. But a novelist may require those tools to fully realize his or her expression. The resulting book should be sought by teachers and students with the purpose of exploring the tools of critical thinking — not banned outright. That’s the purpose of education — to learn how to think, not to learn how to fear.
“1984” by George Orwell
“The Anarchist Cookbook”
“The Kingdom of God is Within You” by Leo Tolstoy
“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury
Books that envision possibilities outside or beyond a principal ideology suffer bans and censorship. Covert sniping gives way to overt book-burning when a controlling political interest feels threatened. The sad lesson? Young people learn how to censor by watching older, presumably wiser people keep information from them while uttering “it’s for your own good.”
“Daddy’s Roommate” and “Uncle What-Is-It Is Coming To Visit!!” by Michael Willhoite
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and “Forever” by Judy Blume
“Gossip Girls” series by Cecily Von Ziegesar
Fear prompts challenges to many books, but not necessarily the fear a book might generate in a youthful reader. Rather, it is the adults’ fear of the book’s contents — perhaps a blunt or harsh depiction of a reality that the adults do not wish to acknowledge exists or believe is not necessary for the young to ever understand — that drives the challenge.
In an interview with The Freedom Forum, Willhoite said:
I’m not out to hurt children. Traditional families just can’t accept homosexuality or anything different from the norm. … (Readers) embraced (my book) wholeheartedly because they finally saw their lives addressed. No child should be ashamed of his or her parents.
Blume, too, said her books seek to teach the young how to understand themselves and their differences:
From what my early readers (now in their 20s and 30s) tell me, I guess I should be pleased. They say I helped them develop a healthy attitude toward their own sexuality at a time when no one was talking to them about their feelings or answering their questions. If my books have helped them become sexually responsible adults, good. If my books have given young women permission to celebrate their sexuality in a healthy way, better yet!
Why should adults fear children learning about what those adults say is not normal and to be shunned and avoided? That attitude only breeds future adults bereft of critical thinking skills and the desire to exercise them. Adults who ban books — ban ideas — that offer portrayals of life as it really is deprive the young of the ability to make fewer mistakes born of ignorance in their passage to adulthood.
“Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson
“Scary Stories” series by Alvin Schwartz
“Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling
“The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury
So, too, do book banners fear those works that depict fantasy, the occult, the apparently satanic. (Have they examined the video games the young play? Do they explain the difference between reality and fiction in the television shows the young watch?) Fearful adults reserve their harshest enmity for fantasy in part because fantasy suggests anti-religious or occult themes. It is easier, the critics appear to believe, to ban a book of fantasy rather than teach it, explain it, compare it, research it … and separate it from reality.
Who among us does not daydream? Who does not read for pleasure, for excitement, for diversion? This is another honorable role of books — but another reason for many challenges to books of fantasy. Idle minds are the devil’s playthings, it seems.
The American Library Association says the authors most challenged by critics from 1990 to 2004 were Alvin Schwartz, Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, J.K. Rowling, Michael Willhoite, Katherine Paterson, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, R.L. Stine and John Steinbeck.
The three most common challenges, the association says, are sexually explicit, offensive language and unsuited to age group. But the association lists numerous other types of challenges, many of them reflecting ignorance or bias on the part of the would-be book burners:
anti-ethnic, insensitivity, racism, sexism, homosexuality, nudity, sex education, anti-family, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, abortion, drugs, occult/satanism, suicide, violence, inaccuracy
The types of challenges to books have increased as our political differences — and what those differences are based on — have grown. As politics takes on a religious, anti-secular cast, so, too, do challenges to books and their ideas reflect a desire to exert an ideology that would prevent any education that undermines an anti-secularist heterodoxy.
That’s sad, because books — filled with ideas — embrace life, living and thinking.
Books rich with powerful writing, brimming with imagination, improve us all. They tell us about ourselves. The more evocative a book is, the better it is.
Don’t tell the young “you can’t read this book” (or watch this movie or play this video game or listen to that music). That denies them the opportunity to learn, to be taught how to assess their own emerging values in a world of often divergent cultural and social “norms.” Isn’t that what we send them to school for? To hone their judgment? To form their own opinions? And to accomplish these ends in an informed way?
We rightly seek to protect the young from moral, physical and emotional injury. But part of their education ought to include exposure to ideas unpopular or inimical to others.
A book — an idea — cannot hurt the young. Keeping that book — and that idea — from the young probably will.