The Sunday Salon: The Freedom To Read

by Rachel Baker on September 28, 2008

Closing books shuts out ideasHappy Book Banning Week (BBW)!  This year’s theme is Celebrating the Freedom to Read!

I thought today would be a great time to share some of my thoughts regarding Book Banning. I have a real difficult time understanding why anyone would want to challenge a book.   What gives one small group (or one set of parents) the RIGHT to dictate what gets read or not read in a class? Does the government (local, state or federal) have a right to tell us what books we can and cannot read or teach? Unfortunately, most school systems have books that are prohibited, though never truly challenged. More specifically, where does it say someone has a right to push their beliefs on a group of people? More often than not, a book is challenged because it disturbed someone’s delicate sensibilities. 

What is the purpose of Banned Book Week (BBW), you ask?  According to the American Library Association (ALA):

BBW celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.

Often times, books throughout the country are challenged and not banned.  What’s the difference?  According to the ALA:

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.  A banning is the removal of those materials.  Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.

Recently, Another Country by James Baldwin was prohibited from high school AP curriculum in an Arizona school system. Apparently, one child’s parents raised a stink about the book. The book in question has been deemed offensive in the past for the bi-sexuality and drug usage in the story line. The book has been deemed somewhat autobiographical about the author, an African American writer who moved to Paris in 1948, who was in fact bi-sexual, because of American prejudices towards blacks and homosexuality. You will find some theories that in the three main characters you can see three different aspects of who the author was at three different times in his life. Baldwin wrote about finding one’s personal identity, as well as, racial and sexual issues throughout his whole career. From the 40s through the Civil Rights movement in the 60s and 70s. Based on my research, this book has a TON of things to discuss in any American history class OR American Literature Class or EVEN a Writing Class.

Okay, okay, maybe you don’t want your child subjected to books on bi-sexuality and heavy drug usage – not sure I blame you…IF that was what the book was truly about.  Fortunately, these subjects are just a catalyst for a much deeper concept.  Another Country by James Baldwin is about the willingness to ignore parts of reality that you find unpleasant.  The bisexuality and drug usage are just used as the catalyst for the deeper concept.  That’s it, that’s all, just the catalyst.

Borderline autobiographical fictional novels (such as, Another Country) are still fiction.  Fiction by definition is a lie However, in both good and bad literature you can find truths that are often not so glaring about human nature, the social and political structures that the author was living in, as well as what life was like in those times. The literary fiction we have exposure to teaches us how to think critically about the world around us.

We can sit in a history class and get the jist of the Civil Rights movement, but until we ‘see’ it played out, we can’t possibly empathize with those that lived through the toughest parts of it.  We can’t possibly understand anything about the long term effects of the French Revolution or the social injustice in France during the 19th century; but if we read Hugo’s Les Miserables we have a greater understanding of the social, political and emotional implications.

Let’s take Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  This is a great novel about chasing the American Dream and the social power structures in America during the 1930s.  On a psychological note, this novel when truly analyzed is a great catalyst for seeing the predatory nature of humanity in action. Isn’t this sort of an important concept in human behavior for us to consider in our regular every day lives? PS.  Of Mice and Men is one of the most challenged books of the 21st Century, and its one of the top 10 challenged books between 1990 and 2000.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier is a great book about the effects of psychological warfare and the affects of fear written on a level that most of us can understand – using the bully at school as the catalyst for this powerful lesson.  This particular book is #2 on the list of most challenged in the 21th century.  Yet, The Chocolate War deals with overcoming guilt, and ethical issues regarding choices teenagers are forced to make.  Sounds like pretty good lessons for teenagers to learn about.  Oh, but there’s swearing, and masturbation, and a not-so-happy ending.  Wake up, kids swear, and talk about (and sometimes practice) masturbation, and let’s face it, being a teenager, often times, isn’t a happy time.

Reading and analyzing Literature allows us to understand what people may have lived through, when we can’t find anyone close to us who can verbalize the pain and fear that consumed them on a daily basis. The Diary of Anne Frank helps us to understand not just the historical aspects of the Nazi Occupation but also the social and emotional ramifications of this time period.  Most of us can’t possibly understand what true poverty is like, but the Grapes of Wrath puts the Great Depression into perspective. We have no real way of understanding what life must of truly been like. We have no real basis for learning how to truly empathize with others who are different than those in our own social circle.  On an reflective note:  I read The Grapes of Wrath my freshman year of high school, and few times over the years.  It wasn’t until just now I realized my grandfather was in his 20s during the Great Depression.  He lived through it. He grew up on a farm in Alabama, and while not affected by drought as Oklahoma and Texas was,  I think now realizing this fact in my grandfather’s history, I should re-read it.  I will probably understand a great deal more about my grandfather than I did before. My grandfather passed away a long, long time ago, I never had a chance to ask him what life was like – I was to young to understand there was anything beyond my existence.  I can’t go back and ask him what it was like, but I can get a hypothetical and educated understanding of what life was like in the country. This book was banned and burned all over this country when it came out, because of the offensive nature of the way migrants lived. If books like The Grapes of Wrath were banned throughout the entire country to this day, we would have a very difficult time understanding the life our parents and grandparents lived in the wake of economic and social dishevel.

In my humble opinion, we can’t possibly truly process the significance of what we are learning in history, psychology, and sociology without some sort of literary reference to help pull the concepts together.

Good and bad literary fiction causes us to touch emotions we sometimes didn’t know we were capable of feeling. To get the full explosion of what this medium of art has to offer, we have to have contrast and we have to peel back the layers of the story. We have to have good and bad. We have to be GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY to read such books and discuss them in guided discussions so that we can understand the true relevance of these works in regards to our lives.

How do you look deeper though?  Do some research.  Look up the specifics of an authors life.  Find a good historical reference time line for the setting of the book you’re reading.  This won’t apply to all books, no…but it does apply to the books your children are required to read in class. You’ll also find significant amounts of critical analysis on these books.  Never, Ever take a book at face value.  We, as readers, can’t assume what the author was trying to convey, but we can learn to see hints about relationships, social and political issues and inner turmoil, if we look past the first layer of a book.

For anyone who still believes you should challenge a book because it may be offensive, consider this:  what’s the point of ever challenging a book and then banning it, if we can just order the book online and have it sent to our house? The ONLY thing challenging a book in this day and age does, other than violate the First Amendment in the United States Bill of Rights, is guarantee children in the area will read this book in the next couple of years if they don’t read it immediately.
Consider the psychological affects of your child’s alienation by other school children.  Consider the increase in online sales of this book by people in your area.  Consider that kids are drawn to taboo and will read whatever book you are challenging on their own, left to their own interpretations.  They will read the book!

The literary fiction taught in our classrooms exposes our children to the ‘real’ world in a way most wouldn’t ever have a chance to experience – helping us to truly understand life’s problems and often times teaching us how empathize with someone else’s issues in the world. At the very least if someone is TEACHING this book, these kids get meaningful discussion instead of trying to interpret the underlying themes on their own. At the very most, these kids will learn to think critically about all sorts of situations they will be placed in throughout life or be able to empathize with others whose situations they can’t possible understand because they’ve not experienced it. Seems to me, critical thinking and the ability to empathize with others are the basics for a more emotionally intellectual society.

To participate in a discussion of what your favorite banned book is, please go here

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