Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries." (Kurt Vonnegut)

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy, and reading is among our greatest freedoms. Some individuals, groups, and public authorities work to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label "controversial" views, to distribute lists of "objectionable" books or authors, and to purge libraries of materials reflecting the diversity of society. Banned Books Week 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. The freedom to read is protected by our Constitution. Intellectual freedom is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture.

Books are banned for a variety of reasons. Materials are often suppressed due to the perceived notion of obscenity. This obscenity can apply to materials that are about sexuality, race, drugs, or social standing. Governments have sought to ban certain books it perceives to contain material that could threaten, embarrass, or criticize it. Religious authorities have banned books in order to shelter members of their faith from perceived obscene, immoral, or profane ideas or situations. But even religious materials have been subject to censorship. The Bible and other religious scriptures have all been subjected to censorship and have been banned by various governments.  

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

Banned Books Week doesn't just stand to protect an author's freedom to express themselves and share their thoughts and ideas with others. BBW also stands to protect your right (and your children's right), the People's right, to freely read books and materials that may show any range of viewpoints on any number of subjects in school curriculum's and in public libraries. The way facts and history are presented greatly influences the interpretation of contemporary thought, opinion and socialization. One argument for censoring the type of information disseminated is based on the "inappropriate" quality of such material for young people. The term "inappropriate", however, is completely subjective.

The first book banned in America was Thomas Morton's New English Canaan (1637). Canaan is three books: 10 chapters of closely observed Native American life (they made Morton's success possible); 10 chapters on the wonders of American nature; and the final 10 chapters is his satiric attack on the Pilgrims and Boston Puritans, warning that if their "martialist" approach to America were followed, the continent would become a Christian labor camp. No wonder Morton (who was the New England Colonies' first "criminal exile") and his book were banned - they were sympathetic toward Native Americans, admiring of nature, and contemptuous toward the self-sanctified.

According to the American Library Association, American libraries were faced with 4,312 book challenges over the past nine years. A challenge is defined as "a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness." The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. It is estimated that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported. You can see the top ten banned and challenged books by year here and a list of the top 100 banned and challenged classics here. I can't say enough how confused I am that E.B. White's Charlotte's Web is on the banned and challenged classics list - #13.

Help celebrate Banned Books Week (September 25 - October 2, 2010). The New York Times has compiled a list of Things YOU Can Do To Celebrate Banned Books Week. It's full of banned books factoids and lots of juicy links to resources online - so check it out. Visit a library or bookstore with a Banned Books Week display, pick a book from one of the challenged and banned books lists to borrow/buy and read. Judy Blume once said, "It's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers." To me, that is the greatest injustice!

Have you ever been caught reading under the covers? So was the late Judith Krug, the librarian who created Banned Books Week. Her mother's reaction to what she was reading taught her a lesson about having the freedom to read that later translated into her passion for the First Amendment and intellectual freedom.

All these people talk so eloquently about getting back to good old-fashioned values. Well, as an old poop I can remember back to when we had those old-fashioned values, and I say let's get back to the good old-fashioned First Amendment of the good old-fashioned Constitution of the United States -- and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge or give me death!   ~ Kurt Vonnegut


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