October 22, 2018

Is it okay to ban books? Or is it not?

 By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — What a hot potato!

This is the dramatic exhibit in our library. Other libraries all over the country are doing the same thing as part of Banned Book Week.

Some good and really well-motivated people believe that it is okay to ban books. Not just nuts do.

Others feel it’s evil and fight it fiercely.

I stand with those who think it’s awful.

Why am I bringing this up today?  Simple. At our public library I spotted a powerful display that featured three books that had been banned.

The three were side by side. All open. And look at the word plastered over them. Who could miss that?!

More than that. The display listed some 300 books right here in our own library network that had been banned.

And on exhibit below that were about a dozen of these books. Powerful indeed!

It was all so fascinating. So provocative. I’ll blog about this, I thought. And took the picture  to show you.

The three featured books from left to right are:

— “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” published in 2006, by novelist Ayelet Waldman,

— “An Introduction to French Authors,” 1894, all in French by the way, by Alphonse N. Van Dall, a celebrated professor of literature back then.

— “The Hymnbook” of the Presbyterian Church USA, MCMLV, a collaboration.

Looking around and sure that no librarian was watching, I took the liberty to skim through all three of them. Impossible to be thorough, of course. But all were inoffensive, I decided finally, and put them back.

Still, I scratched my head and wondered, What in God’s name could have been so vile and awful about these books that somebody felt compelled to step up and “challenge” them? And managed to get them banned!

Here’s something interesting.  I just looked up that Ayelet Waldman novel at Amazon.com and know what? It’s easily available. You can buy it as a paper book or even an e-book. The paper edition sells for less than $6. And it boasts more than a hundred reviews, many calling it wonderful, terrific.

So: all those banned books that I cited have outlived their banning. No doubt about it.

This display was a part of the ALA’s annual Banned Books Week. The American Library Association, very powerful indeed, has been fighting banning for years.

Please notice I used the verb “challenge.” In this context it means to officially demand that something be suppressed, in this case books. The person challenging has to give a reason, which makes sense.

Well, I went digging. People get steamed up for so, so many reasons. Here are the top 20. Brace yourself:

Anti-ethnic, cultural sensitivity, racism, sexism, anti-family, nudity, offensive language, drugs / alcohol / smoking / gambling, games,  violence, suicide, sexually explicit, political viewpoint, occult / satanism, inaccurate, technical error, and others….

Wow!

Well, as some of you know, I have published three books. Copies of them are on the shelves in this library.

It’s doubtful yet conceivable that some crackpot might get inflamed by something he / she spotted in one or another of my books. I do express many an opinion in them. And the crackpot would begin yelling, “Ban this awful, awful book by LaPlante! Right now!”

Without a doubt some authors at one time or another do get uptight about such a possibility and keep a bottle of sleeping pills at their bedside just in case. It could imperil their career. I do not keep sleeping pills by my bed, I assure you.

To ban or not to ban has been a hot potato ever since our earliest days, long before we became a republic — before our Founding Fathers. Even going back centuries earlier on the other side of the Atlantic to when Martin Luther in 1517 nailed his theses on the cathedral door —  and made history that shapes our thinking to this very day. He paid a heavy price. But it launched the Reformation.

It’s impossible to talk about banning books without talking about burning books. To ban a book means to say, “Naughty, naughty, naughty!” Burning books — putting a match to them — is far worse. No need to say more.

Who decides to ban a book? Often parents will fight to ban a book used in class in order to protect their kids. A troubled reader. Or a private school that finds something awful.  Or churches. Or political groups. Even a country will.

Fanatics, for sure, but as you see also some very well-intentioned people and groups have clamored to ban books, and often have succeeded.

The most notable anti-banning group for sure has been the ALA. It sees banning as blatant censorship. Working with its thousands of public libraries, it has had an enormous impact.

Other powerful groups have joined the fight. The Association of American Publishers. The American Association of Booksellers. The American Society of Journalists and Authors. And others. Easy to understand why.

What we may not realize is that through our First Amendment and its successive interpretations, the freedom for anyone to publish has been strengthened. And for us to read. How fortunate we are.

Yet keeping pace all the while has been the effort to ban books. Ban! Ban! Ban!

It’s amazing how many hundreds of books have been banned, including many greatly esteemed and written by eminently successful writers.

Here is just a tiny sampling:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

—  Anne Frank, the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

—  The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin.

Another Country by James Baldwin.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

To repeat, this is just a smattering. All these were banned on “social” grounds, mind you. Threatening our society, I guess.

Here is the official stance of the ALA:

“To actively advocate in defense of the rights of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

“A publicly supported library provides free and equal access to information for all people of that community.

“We enjoy this basic right in our democratic society. It is a core value of the library profession.”

Amen! The ALA has been fighting the good fight for 23 years. I applaud it.

Here are the four steps that the ALA insists we take if we agree that banning is bad.

  1. Stand up for our rights!
  2. Read a Banned Book!
  3. Defend the First Amendment!
  4. Protest Banning!

And not just now during Banned Book Week!

The ALA’s good news is, and I quote, “due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students, and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.” Bravo!

Yet I confess I have reservations. Sure, I’m against banning as a general policy.

But if I said I opposed it unconditionally, that would mean I would have to be open to and be tolerant of some awful stuff. Pornography. Sadism. Inflammatory rhetoric. Debauchery. Obviously flawed and untruthful garbage. On and on.

Again keep in mind that the First Amendment gives us all the right to read whatever we like.

I know I sound contradictory. Let me explain a bit more.

For general books and all around reading matter in a public library, meaning newspapers and magazines and also CD documentaries and movies, I see no problem.

How come? Well, someone in any public library system decides which books and items to purchase and stock. Every public library has a budget that has to be respected. And any library has only so much shelf space. The only library we have that has the ability and makes it a point to stock everything is our Library of Congress in Washington.

And that professional librarian who specializes in selecting books to buy (probably a committee is involved) selects for a middle ground. Nothing to the extreme left or the extreme right. Everything in a safe and reasonable in-between.

So in effect that person is saying yes or no. And in effect is banning by rejecting.

See my point? Do I make sense?

Thinking about all this, I was startled to remember that I banned a book at one time. In fact it was a kind of “burning.” Yes, me!

I was 14 or 15. Loved book-reading, as I do now. I was a kid in a Catholic prep school. A boarding school. And I came into possession of a book that shocked my adolescent sensibilities. What to do? Well, in a quiet corner, sure that nobody was around, I tore the book apart. Then tore the pages into pieces. Then buried them deep into two different trash cans. All the while thinking, of course, that I was doing the right and proper thing. Felt very good about it.

One other troubling memory. When a student in a Catholic college I — we — became aware of “The Index.”

A teacher  about a certain book would say, “Oh, that book? It’s in The Index! So it’s awful! So, no, no! It would be a sin for you or me to read it!”

Taboo!

And we accepted that. Again the thinking was that this was the intelligent and right thing to do.

You see, for some 400 years, the Vatican had listed some books in “The Index of Prohibited Books.”  Many, many. The kind that the faithful should not be exposed to, the Vatican decided.

The Vatican felt that those books would be “a contamination of the faith” or “the corruption of morals.”

It’s just yesterday in researching all this that I learned that The Index finally was suppressed by Pope Paul the Sixth in 1966. Hallelujah!

To me, all this is a reminder that all of us, well, nearly all of us, are the unconscious victims — maybe “prisoners”  is a better word — of our culture. And we must hope, through study, and reflection, and exposure, that we shall escape it and survive it.

This ain’t a light topic, is it? It hasn’t been easy for me to figure out where I stand myself. And of course I wonder, what do you think of all this? I know you’ll be honest. Is banning okay? Or is it not?

How do you feel about this hot potato?

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