Some Uncensored Thoughts on Censorship

Banned Books Week 2013 bookjourney

I didn’t plan my September reading well enough to have a book lined up for Banned Books Week 2013, which begins on Monday, and I didn’t plan this week well enough to put together an original piece on censorship for Sheila’s annual Banned Books Week event. She’s holding it a week in advance due to a schedule conflict, and calling it “Reading to Beat the Banned.” But I’ve written about this before, and my feelings really haven’t changed much.

Here’s the official list of the 10 books most frequently challenged in school and public libraries in 2012:

  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey. Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  3. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher. Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  5. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. Reasons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group
  6. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green. Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  8. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz. Reasons: Unsuited for age group, violence
  9. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  10. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence

(I’ll be honest; if we’re talking strictly about school libraries, I can’t really disagree that they’re no place for Fifty Shades of Grey.)

There aren’t all that many commonalities among the books in this list, thematically. They vary in their objective literary merit, and if it weren’t for the fact that they’ve been banned or challenged, there would probably be nothing especially memorable about some of them. However, they’ve all been challenged because they pose a challenge–to ideas about religion, politics, morality and ethics, and the structure and habits of society. But if a society–or an individual–means to grow, it’s necessary to challenge established ideas, and to develop tools to consider them critically.

The American Library Association defines the purpose of Banned Books Week as:

“…(f)ocusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books (to draw) national attention to the harms of censorship. (T)he frequently challenged books section (of the ALA website) explore(s) the issues and controversies around book challenges and book banning. The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This happens only thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.”

The ALA and its partners have been calling attention to the issue of censorship and “celebrating the freedom to read” during the last week of September every year since 1982. “Freedom to read” also includes the freedom not to read books that we might find objectionable, of course…but in a free society, the individual should be the one who exercises those freedoms and makes those choices, not some (self-appointed) educational or morality police.

It’s entirely reasonable for parents to be the ones to exercise those rights on behalf of their own young children regarding what they read in their own homes, of course. But as children get older, the parents’ role–as well as the schools’–appropriately shifts toward giving kids the tools to discern what’s worth reading for themselves. It’s harder to develop that discernment when options are deliberately limited and critical thinking is discouraged; and sometimes, what’s worth reading just might “convey shocking, controversial or unpopular ideas.”

I thoroughly support the freedom to read what one chooses to read–and in order to make those choices well, one needs access to the full range of choices. I also believe in the freedom to choose not to read something–as long as that choice is truly mine. I do not support censorship. I don’t believe in delegating my right to decide what I can and can’t read to anyone else. I have the tools to make those decisions for myself, and I believe we all have the right to those tools.

Having said that, I don’t often make a point of seeking out and reading banned or censored books just because they’re challenged (although there have been cases where it’s the controversy that brings a book to my attention and piques my initial interest). That said, I also know there are themes and topics that just don’t appeal to me, and quality of writing notwithstanding, if I choose not to read a particular book, that will be the reason why. But I deserve to be able to make that decision for myself. So do you. So does every reader.

Banned Books Week calls attention to the fact that the freedom to read gets challenged every day of the year, and that we all have the right, and the responsibility, to challenge that.

Banned Books Week 2013

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