Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Welcome, welcome all to a new experiment of mine. First, a little background.

I work at a Public Library and love my job. I like to tell people that I haven't worked in close to three years, because the adage is true: if you do something you love, it's not really 'work'. I also like to say I get paid to check people out (bad joke, but in reality accurate). I am a member of REFORMA, a group that promotes literacy for/to Hispanic and Spanish-speakers. As a member, I often get a lot of e-mails, and I confess sometimes they are not of the greatest interest to me. However, one did catch my eye.

It was one that contained a series of links to various library-related subjects, and one of them was about banned books. This subject is of endless fascination to me, most controversial. On the one hand (I sound like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof) I am loath to ban anything from the library itself. I firmly believe that Freedom of Speech is vital to our survival. I also firmly hold that there should be a wide array of views and opinions and thoughts that should be expressed freely and that should be accessible to everyone. There are some books which I passionately disagree or dislike, but I would not want to deny access to it merely because they have views opposite of mine. On the other, I know that total freedom is anarchy, and that there must be limits to every right. My right to use my fist, Oliver Wendell Holmes I think said, stops at the tip of my opponent's nose.

In any case, I came across various lists provided by the American Library Association (ALA) about banned/challenged books. These are books that either individuals or groups have attempted to remove from libraries (mostly schools) and classrooms. As I looked over two lists, a few things surprised me.

On the list of the 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century, 42 had been targeted. I looked at the list, I was ashamed to discover that of the 100, I have read only 11. The BIGGER shock came in the fact that of the 11, 7 were among the 42. If everyone who wanted those books removed had gotten their way, I would have been allowed only 4 books. What was even more amazing was that 6 of the 7 banned books was required school readings, ranging from middle school (Gone With the Wind) to college (The Jungle). The seventh (The Call of the Wild) I had read after college and for my own pleasure. Could someone have found this story so onerous that they thought they were doing me a favor by getting rid of it and not letting ME read it?

Of course, you can argue, these bans wouldn't apply to adults. They would be forbidden to children (Think of The Children! Won't someone please THINK OF THE CHILDREN?). Some on another list (The Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books Between 2000-2009) are no surprise. The Number One book (the Harry Potter series) has been the source of fierce controversy since publication. I am familiar with both sides: one believing they are introducing occult and Satanic ideas into children, others that see them as completely harmless. Some however, did really take me by surprise. Take for example, Number 71: the Junie B. Jones series. JUNIE B. JONES? There was a parent or group of parents that thought a series about the wacky misadventures of a FIRST-GRADER were that dangerous? I've read one or two of the Junie B. Jones books and find them rather innocuous. I'm therefore extremely puzzled to see them listed as banned or challenged. Truth be told, I can see why Number 13 (the Captain Underpants series) causes concern: the two protagonists delight in mocking and questioning authority figures and come up with the most idiotic situations for their eponymous superhero. However, I've only glanced at them, so I'm not in much position to actually say if they are good or bad.

Of course, here is the crux: as a parent, I wouldn't allow my child to read Captain Underpants, maybe Harry Potter (not because of any Satanic overtones, but because I dislike the mass killings within them...and I didn't think Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was well-written in the first place, but I digress). The distinction here is that I am exercising control over MY child/children, not over SOMEONE else's child. If another parent wants their offspring to devour everything Harry Potter, that is their prerogative. I would not ask that it be removed from the school is not my place to tell other people and their families what to do with their eyes or minds.

What if it were a requirement to read Harry Potter in class, or if the teacher read Harry Potter out loud to the children? Here, we get into more dicey circumstances. I'd like to think I'm consistent enough to say that I still wouldn't ask that they be removed. I would have to debate whether I thought the removal/banning of a book was worth the price. For some parents, it is. Here I guess is where I dissent from those who oppose banning completely. Parents have the right to have their voices heard, and to be given a fair hearing as to why they would object. I most certainly would object if my middle school had as required reading The Joys of Gay Sex (Number 78--still can't believe Junie B. Jones is MORE DANGEROUS than gay sex) because I don't think middle school kids should be reading about sex at all. High school I think would be more appropriate for that, so I wouldn't protest a high school with a copy. To my mind, it's not a question of title, but of age-appropriateness.

One thing I WOULDN'T do is burn books (irony of ironies, at Number 69 is Fahrenheit 451, a novel about book burning). I know someone who is PROUD of the fact he participated in a book burning: Harry Potter books in particular. He in his heart of hearts truly believes he did the right thing. I don't know if he burned Number 40 of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, but I did read about a group which did (I think he was with them too). This group burned, because they believed it encouraged Satanism, The Lord of the Rings.

Allow me to say a few things about that book and its author. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien was a politically conservative man: he even admired Franco. I don't hold that against him--George Bernard Shaw thought Stalin was a gentle giant, showing that even the greatest of writers can be absolute idiots. Tolkien was also a very Catholic man. In fact, it was his Catholicism and faith in Jesus Christ that were one of the causes of then atheist/agnostic Clive Staples Lewis to become, in his own words, "the most reluctant and dejected convert in all England". Without Tolkien, there would be no C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist extraordinare: no Screwtape Letters, no Mere Christianity, no A Grief Observed. (Side note: given that The Screwtape Letters involved demons, shouldn't those be burned as well?) I can imagine dear old Tollers, this most Catholic, conservative, old-school professor, being accused and found guilty of Satanism! I'm willing to place my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor, on the fact that if Lewis had seen this going on, he would not have been amused, and most certainly would not have endorsed it. Tolkien would have been shocked beyond anything to have seen his writings set ablaze because a few decided they knew his mind better than he did.

I now digress to ask these questions of my Book Burners. Who exactly appointed you to decide what is in my best interest? Am I that intellectually weak that I cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality? Are you so spiritually in-tune with my God that He has commanded you to make decisions for me? Oddly, I think I am the best person to decide whether a book is bad or not, not someone with a lighter. I roundly condemn those who burn books for public spectacle. If you wish to burn your own books that is your business, but if you gathered books together or worse bought books for the sole purpose of burning them, then you are an idiot and not fit for the title of Christian.

Well, forgive my diatribe. I have not learned to be brief. Here is my experiment: I will do something few people do: I will read banned books. That is the purpose of The Index of Forbidden Books. I'd like to tackle those 100 Greatest Novels as well...working to be more educated (which is what Book Burners are not). Some, like the Harry Potter books (which I confess I'm not eager to tackle--they look awful long), will take a long time to get through. However, I take great delight in being able to read in the first place, and greater delight in being able to decide for myself whether a book is so dangerous that it must be removed. I'm in such a giddy mood about this, I might even read The Communist Manifesto...even though I HATE Communism. Updates will not occur quickly: I like to take my time. However, I'm looking forward to touch the forbidden.

I conclude with this. The picture above is from the 1930s, when the Nazis were deciding that anything THEY declared anti-German (ie. Jewish or anti-Nazi) should be exterminated from the face of the Earth. The picture below is from 2000s, in Albuquerque, where a group of "Christians" decided to get rid of the evil known as J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. Man truly is extremely foolish.


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