Sunday, September 26, 2010

Read Banned Books!

by Sean Flannigan

This week, starting yesterday actually, is Banned Books Week, an annual educational affair sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA). It is a week of celebration for the intellectual freedom of thought, of being exposed to new ideas or being the one exposing. The right to information through free speech, as outlined in the first amendment, has had a difficult slog through the stubbornness of human ignorance and religious fundamentalism, and has only been protected by the tireless advocates of those freedoms, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ALA.

Throughout history, American and otherwise, books have been dashed from the shelves with gleeful fervor by the iron-fisted arbiters of our various republics and democracies. Anything deemed offensive, heretical, subversive or overly critical, among other things, by any ruling government or religious majority has been challenged and banned with great speed. Beyond these supposed threats to incumbent ruling classes and ideologies, there are also the books which are banned in order to shield the eyes of the innocent from anything untoward or obscene, as decided by the seemingly frightened and hyperbolic. This sort of backwards "burn the witch" mentality, one would assume, should be a thing of the past, something we have worked through and gotten over, like a bad flu or adolescence, but it is still alive and well today at a school or library near you. Many books have been challenged and banned in the U.S. and Canada in just the past year. You can find the PDF here. One from this list I would like to point out is the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which was pulled from the Menifee, California Union School District because a parent complained when their child came across the term "oral sex" whilst perusing the "O" section. The district is forming a committee to consider a permanent ban. Maybe this parent should scan the dictionary for any other entries they find unnecessary, in order that we could appropriately abridge that book of words. The past two decades have been rife with these sorts of challenges and bans, the most popular of which you can find listed here (2000-2009) and here (1990-1999).

Books, in case it's unclear, must be challenged before they are banned. Here are some visual aids concerning our recent past, provided by the ALA (click to enlarge):

Challenges by Year
Challenges by Institution

More information about challenges and bans in history can be found here, plus further statistics. Partial lists of banned books can be found here and here.

A popular and popularly banned book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary and has, as recently as November 2009 (aforementioned PDF, page 6), been banned in certain schools and libraries the country over. This gives proof that great ideas can withstand the tyranny of ignorance over time, even despite lingering righteous outrage. So, wish it a happy fiftieth and read it if you haven't. Libraries all over the U.S. are participating in Banned Books Week, which they call "Think for Yourself and Let Others Do the Same." Check out your local library for Banned Books Week events and displays. Go read some banned books. Think for yourself. Let others do the same.

Here are some further resources and opinions:

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