“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine.” Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
When I was in 4th grade, my teachers, Mrs. Moody and Ms. Cool, read us a banned book. Two banned books, actually. Every day after lunch we would all put our textbooks away and sit quietly at our desks (the kinds with the lids that lifted so you could store your books and papers and pencils inside) and one of our teachers would read to us. I remember The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, A Cricket in Times Square, and James and the Giant Peach. Madeleine L’Engle has been one of my favorite authors since Mrs. Moody read us the first sentence of A Wrinkle in Time. My 4th grade class spent the whole year with some of the best books in children’s literature. That time after lunch was our favorite time of the day. Other kids weren’t so lucky — both James and the Giant Peach and A Wrinkle in Time are among the most frequently banned books in schools and libraries.
Banned Books Week 2013 is September 22-28. Book banning is not a reason to celebrate, but the Banned Books Week is. The week celebrates not the practice of banning books; instead it celebrates our freedom to read by reminding us to guard it carefully. In 1953, the American Library Association and Association of American Publishers (then the American Book Publishers Council) together issued The Freedom to Read Statement. The statement is both an eloquent warning about the reality and dangers of censorship and an inspiring exhortation to uphold the values of the First Amendment. The statement is addressed to librarians and publishers, but we can all glean from it a personal action plan for protecting the freedom to read. The statement ends with these propositions:
The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution. Those with faith in free people will stand firm on these constitutional guarantees of essential rights and will exercise the responsibilities that accompany these rights.
We therefore affirm these propositions:
- It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority. Creative thought is by definition new, and what is new is different. The bearer of every new thought is a rebel until that idea is refined and tested. Totalitarian systems attempt to maintain themselves in power by the ruthless suppression of any concept that challenges the established orthodoxy. The power of a democratic system to adapt to change is vastly strengthened by the freedom of its citizens to choose widely from among conflicting opinions offered freely to them. To stifle every nonconformist idea at birth would mark the end of the democratic process. Furthermore, only through the constant activity of weighing and selecting can the democratic mind attain the strength demanded by times like these. We need to know not only what we believe but why we believe it.
- Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated. Publishers and librarians serve the educational process by helping to make available knowledge and ideas required for the growth of the mind and the increase of learning. They do not foster education by imposing as mentors the patterns of their own thought. The people should have the freedom to read and consider a broader range of ideas than those that may be held by any single librarian or publisher or government or church. It is wrong that what one can read should be confined to what another thinks proper.
- It is contrary to the public interest for publishers or librarians to bar access to writings on the basis of the personal history or political affiliations of the author. No art or literature can flourish if it is to be measured by the political views or private lives of its creators. No society of free people can flourish that draws up lists of writers to whom it will not listen, whatever they may have to say.
- There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression. To some, much of modern expression is shocking. But is not much of life itself shocking? We cut off literature at the source if we prevent writers from dealing with the stuff of life. Parents and teachers have a responsibility to prepare the young to meet the diversity of experiences in life to which they will be exposed, as they have a responsibility to help them learn to think critically for themselves. These are affirmative responsibilities, not to be discharged simply by preventing them from reading works for which they are not yet prepared. In these matters values differ, and values cannot be legislated; nor can machinery be devised that will suit the demands of one group without limiting the freedom of others.
- It is not in the public interest to force a reader to accept the prejudgment of a label characterizing any expression or its author as subversive or dangerous. The ideal of labeling presupposes the existence of individuals or groups with wisdom to determine by authority what is good or bad for others. It presupposes that individuals must be directed in making up their minds about the ideas they examine. But Americans do not need others to do their thinking for them.
- It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people’s freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information. It is inevitable in the give and take of the democratic process that the political, the moral, or the aesthetic concepts of an individual or group will occasionally collide with those of another individual or group. In a free society individuals are free to determine for themselves what they wish to read, and each group is free to determine what it will recommend to its freely associated members. But no group has the right to take the law into its own hands, and to impose its own concept of politics or morality upon other members of a democratic society. Freedom is no freedom if it is accorded only to the accepted and the inoffensive. Further, democratic societies are more safe, free, and creative when the free flow of public information is not restricted by governmental prerogative or self-censorship.
- It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression. By the exercise of this affirmative responsibility, they can demonstrate that the answer to a “bad” book is a good one, the answer to a “bad” idea is a good one. The freedom to read is of little consequence when the reader cannot obtain matter fit for that reader’s purpose. What is needed is not only the absence of restraint, but the positive provision of opportunity for the people to read the best that has been thought and said. Books are the major channel by which the intellectual inheritance is handed down, and the principal means of its testing and growth. The defense of the freedom to read requires of all publishers and librarians the utmost of their faculties, and deserves of all Americans the fullest of their support.
We state these propositions neither lightly nor as easy generalizations. We here stake out a lofty claim for the value of the written word. We do so because we believe that it is possessed of enormous variety and usefulness, worthy of cherishing and keeping free. We realize that the application of these propositions may mean the dissemination of ideas and manners of expression that are repugnant to many persons. We do not state these propositions in the comfortable belief that what people read is unimportant. We believe rather that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.
Banned Books Week is also a celebration of the books themselves. Some of the most treasured classics, respected works of modern literature, and prize-winning children’s literature have been the targets of book banning campaigns. Although it makes me sad that someone doesn’t appreciate the value of these works and therefore someone else may not get to read them, I love to look through the banned books lists and pick out the ones that I’ve read and enjoyed and even the ones that I didn’t like (I don’t have to like them to appreciate them and uphold the freedom of others to read them). Looking through the lists takes me back to my 4th grade classroom, my high school library, my college dorm — all the places where, instead of telling me that I couldn’t read something, somebody introduced me to a book that may have been controversial but that contained a wonderful story, challenging ideas, inspiring people, a first line that drew me in and an ending that made me think. Some of these books I’ve read again — more than once. Others, I’ll never pick up again, but the point is that I got to read and think about them once.
Celebrate Banned Books Week with me and the Jameson Law Library. To start, here are a few lists of banned books. How many have you read? Think about the stories you loved, the ideas that challenged you, the things you learned. Share your favorite banned books by commenting to this post.
- Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000-2009
- Banned & Challenged Classics
- Books Challenged or Banned 2012-2013
Starting Monday, September 23, the Jameson Law Library will host a display about banned books and censorship, complete with a few banned books. No doubt you’ll pick up a few of them and wonder, “why was this one banned?” The bigger question is, why were any of them banned. Join us and think a little deeper about the issue of banning books and ideas.