Exercise Your Freedom to Read (a banned book)

No books were banned from my childhood home, that I recall. I did sneak a book about the infamous Bonnie and Clyde to my bedroom, but only because my mother wouldn’t let me see the movie. No, we were a very bookish household and my mother was a classic theater geek, so all literary pursuits were encouraged.

I always knew some books faced the ban. I could see why Lady Chatterley’s Lover might have raised eyebrows in its time but banning Huck Finn or To Kill A Mockingbird perplexed me. (As a child, I wasn’t much aware of race issues, growing up in my lily-white Midwestern town.) I didn’t even notice when Banned Books Week was established in 1982, set aside to raise awareness of the growing challenges to books. It followed the landmark Island Trees School District v. Pico Supreme Court ruling that school officials couldn’t ban books in libraries simply on content.

By the 90s, I had children of my own to introduce to beloved classics and to discover new ones (Hello, Harry Potter). I didn’t do everything right as a parent, but I did manage to raise two voracious readers.

People want to read. Since the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1440, books have made their way to those people. In 2020, I don’t worry about the demise of books. Print or digital, book sales are steady worldwide. People still want to read, but I don’t think they know how tenuous our freedom to read is.

We still need to have Banned Books Week every year because the attempt on censorship continues. Librarians, those quiet (Shhhh!) warriors of ideas, indefatigable defenders of our freedom to read, are on the frontlines for us. Too many (in my opinion) feel pressured to self-censor – meaning, they just don’t put a title on the shelves rather than find themselves having to defend a book that falls outside of some “norm.” Just buy a book instead, you say. Let’s check our privilege, I say.

Why do books get challenged in the first place? Well, sex – a lot of the time. And things related to sex. Quite often it’s the “coming of age” stories that find themselves under the “banned” banner. (Judy Blume fans know what I’m talking about.) Imagine thinking that if we don’t read about “coming of age” it will never happen. If only.

Vulgarity creeps into the banning formula regularly. I’m in the Word Business and I can’t imagine the poor sod who has to keep track of all the newest curse words in case they make their way into a book. Exhausting.

Race and ethnicity also raise eyebrows, apparently. I can’t change my race or my heritage, so I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want me to read books that put me into someone else’s world. But that’s just me.

One topic not banned nearly as much as sex and swearing is violence. It’s there, but not as much as one would think if the intent on banning certain books is to protect our innocent ones from learning unsavory ways. I also didn’t find many challenges to books touching corruption. Of course, we’re conflicted about that one since corruption so often pays big dividends.

Before I step down from my soapbox, my stanch defense of books is not to silence individuals who disagree with particular content. I have my own list of books so poorly written they should have never seen the light of day much less a library, but that’s a different post. My argument against outright banning of books based on content is because it takes away the freedom of others to read and discern for themselves. I do not defend books with lies, weak research or plagiarized material – that is why we have editors, proofreaders and publishers. But I bristle at the idea of never having the choice to read The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hate U Give because someone else didn’t like the topics.

If you’ve read this far, do me a favor? Read a banned book this week (and Huck Finn doesn’t count). Exercise your freedom to read.