Monday, September 28, 2009

The Banning of Atlanta? (sort of)

It's Banned Books Week (September 26 - October 3, 2009) and I was trying to decide what, if anything, I'd have to say on the subject. Honestly, we all know it was unlikely that I was going to remain silent. As I glanced over the banned and challenged list--particularly those that are generally considered classics--I was surprised to find my beloved Gone With the Wind on it. Banning Scarlett's exploits from the greater reading public? Fiddle-dee-dee, as my favorite heroine would no doubt say. To paraphrase the late Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, "nobody puts Scarlett on a banned book list!"

However, to say it's in good company is an understatement. The list includes The Great Gatsby (actually rather a lot of F. Scott and Faulkner are on the list), To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22 and seemingly all of Steinbeck's work. Full disclosure, I'm not a huge Steinbeck fan, but would NEVER for a minute want his work to be off limits to anyone. The list, from the ALA website can be found HERE. (There are several lists, actually, most banned/challenged which is updated every few years and then the classics list.)

I have particularly strong feelings about reading and the freedom to explore and learn--about not only far away places and eras, but more importantly, about ourselves. My parents have my unending gratitude for always encouraging me to read--even when it was checking out The Cat that Clumped** for the millionth time as a very young reader--and never censoring what I brought home from the library or bookstore. Due to my rather "willful nature" (don't you think that's a lovely euphemism for stubborn or mulish?) I would likely have campaigned for my reading freedom had it become necessary, but thankfully, it never was.

Growing up with such great literary choice, I was never terribly conscious of the numbers and types of books that were being banned and challenged in communities and libraries across the country. My friends and I all read what we wanted, we passed around racy romance novels and James Michener books with the "good" parts noted by dog-eared pages; we read Stephen King and sadly, yes, even Alexandra Ripley's ill-considered and poorly written "sequel" to Gone With the Wind, Scarlett. I think for the most part, silly youthful reading choices aside, we turned out pretty well. The brain candy of my teenage years was supplemented with excellent English Lit courses that I devoured, and my reading tastes and interests continued to evolve.

I'm well aware of the arguments put forward by the people who want to keep certain books off shelves for whatever reasons. They'll plead untoward influences or uncomfortable situations; sexual innuendo, racial epithets, explicit language--the usual. But there are more sinister reasons as well. Books allow us to share our experiences and ideas, and even live vicariously through our favorite characters--that's a very potent and real danger in the minds of a few organizations and individuals. Now, I am not a parent, but I can fully understand the wish to protect your child and to guide their reading choices...but that's a far cry from challenging a book in a library or school so that no child is given the opportunity to read it. Parents ought to check in with what their children read and if they don't approve, then that's fine--for their child--but please don't attempt to make that decision for everyone. I don't believe that any one person is qualified to judge a book's merits for the rest of the reading populace. And to my mind, the downside and negative impact of this kind of literary censorship is exponentially worse than any small positive perceived by the pro-censorship lobby. The great works of literature (hell, even the less-than-great) make us feel and think, they raise our aspirations and nurture our empathy. The bawdy adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; the battling passion and malaise of Hemingway; the brutal precision of Truman Capote--they all are part of the collective literary consciousness. To deny a reader the right to participate in this mind-expanding world is criminal. (And also damned ignorant, if you ask me, but I digress...)

So have I been unduly impacted by the books I've read? Absolutely, and I'm proud of it. I'm utterly corrupted by the written word and I'm at least in part the sum total of my literary consumption. But that's a gift...not something to be concerned about. The more you read, the more you's pretty simple. The more you know, the better equipped you are to think for yourself, choose for yourself, and make an impact of your own. And on the worst days, when everything seems to be wrong, we readers are blessed with our own literary therapists--those go-to books or authors that help make sense of a situation or make us laugh (or cry) so hard that we are able to forget our troubles for the moment. Books help us gain perspective and offer us new lenses through which we can view the world.

In the end, it's about trust, I suppose. Trusting our children or other citizens enough to allow them the opportunity to read what they want without fear of repercussions. Believing that we all benefit from sharing ideas and experiences, from feeling less isolated and more connected. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for trusting me enough to let me enjoy everything on the literary buffet, without guilt or question.

**(For those of you who weren't horse-obsessed children, The Cat That Clumped was about a cat, Hubert, who lived with the Baron. The Baron owned race-horses and Hubert wanted to be a race-horse. But of course he was a cat...therein lies the 'dramatic tension' of the book. Happily, the Baron figures this all out and puts washers on Hubert's feet so he can clump/clomp like the horses and it all ends well.)

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