Imagine walking down the street and encountering a rally. People are holding signs and echoing the slogans shouted from an unseen blow horn. Everyone is gathered around a giant bonfire whose smoke billows upward, tainting the blue sky. Weaving around the angry protestors reveals a bonfire composed not of wood, but of hundreds of books, their pages curling in the fire before turning into ash. And before it can all make sense, more books are thrown on top, each time accompanied by a cheer from the crowd.
Hopefully such a scene would evoke a sense of outrage. Burning books in a country where freedom of speech and press is guaranteed would be appalling to most citizens. However, as Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky once said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One is not reading them.”
Once a year, the American Library Association sponsors national Banned Book Week in the hopes of bringing awareness to how often books are challenged and banned not only in the United States, but also all over the world. This year, Banned Book Week will be Sept. 24 through Oct. 1.
According to the American Library Association, there have been 10,676 book challenges from 1990 to 2010. This means, according to the ALA website, 10,676 attempts have been made to remove or restrict a book based upon an objection of an individual or a group. If the attempt is successful, it results in an outright banning of the book. As stated on the ALA website, “Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice.”
Reasons for banning literature range from having offensive language, violence, sexually explicate content or portrayals of homosexuality. There have even been cases where books have been banned in America because the author was thought to be communist. The most challenges have come from parents with a total of 6,103 from 1990 to 2010.
As stated by the ALA, the most contested books in 2010 included, among others, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie for offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit material and violence; “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins for being sexually explicit and containing violence and “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyers for holding specific religious viewpoints and violence.
The ALA provides an annual list of the most challenged classic novels. Most of the titles are taught in English classes here on campus, including “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway and “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner. Most of the titles have won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize and several of the authors have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Also included on the list is “1984” by George Orwell and “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. Their presence on the list is not without irony considering one of the main themes in both books is literary censorship.
So why should anyone care if books are banned? Simply put, the censorship of literature is a violation of the Bill of Rights. As Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennen, Jr. said in Texas vs. Johnson, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
While the person or groups disputing books may believe that they have the best intentions, such as parents trying to protect their children from material they deem offensive, outright banning of a book is not the appropriate or legal method.
What some school districts have done after a challenge is allow parents to review the books that will be part of a curriculum. Parents must then sign a form stating they give permission for their child to read potentially questionable books. If a parent wishes their student not to read a particular book, an alternative title is provided. This process of individualized decision-making is by far the best solution. It allows parents to protect their children from things they deem unsuitable while not imposing their moral values on others.
For more information on Banned Book Week, visit the American Library Association at ala.org.