Article Comment 

Slimantics: Ban a book, rob a mind


Slim Smith



This week is Banned Books Week, a week the American Library Association (ALA) sets aside each year to call attention to what, in the minds of literate people, is the one of the most frustrating, wrong-headed, counter-productive practices in civilized society. 


As long as there have been books, there have been people who don't want you to read them. 


Objections to certain books run from marginally-reasonable to absurd, but at every point we are confronted with such patently ridiculous examples of banned books that even the most cautious of us simply have to shake our heads. 


You might think that the practice of banning books has waned in recent times. 


Hardly. In fact, every two years the ALA publishing a book on banned books, listing the books which have been deemed inappropriate and citing the history of each case. 


Some books appear in every edition -- Huckleberry Finn is almost always being banned by someone, somewhere. The words of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck are routine "offenders," while more contemporary authors such as Maya Angelou ("I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings") and Khaled Hosseini ("The Kite Runner") and J.K. Rowling (the Harry Potter series) are well on their way to being perpetual offenders. 


The ALA's data tells us much about what sorts of books are banned and who is banning them. 


According to the data, the most common justification for banning books is sexual content, followed closely by offensive language and age-inappropriate content. 


The primary book banners are -- and I shake my head at the irony -- are school libraries and school districts. 


Also by a wide margin, the complaints that lead to banning books comes from parents. 


Let me pause here to acknowledge that bad outcomes can come from good intentions. Parents certainly have a right and a role in determining what sort of ideas their children are exposed to, especially when the question of whether a child is mature enough to process those ideas. 


Where the real problem with that approach emerges is that while a parent have the right to control what his/her child reads, that parent has no right to decide what someone else's child should read. 


Left unchecked, this knee-jerk rejection of books, often on dubious grounds, does far more harm than good. 


During Banned Books Week, libraries across the country have set up exhibits of banned books. 


Some of those banned books, you sort of expect. "50 Shades of Grey," for example. 


But "Hop on Pop" or "To Kill a Mockingbird?" 


"Harry Potter" may be no literary masterpiece, yet it's hard to find a series of books which have done more to encourage a love of reading among kids. Yet on the banned list, those books go, for fear that a generation of kids will be doomed to a life of witchcraft. 


One can only sigh at the silliness of it. 


At Mississippi State's Mitchell Library, a display case features a dozen books that have been on the banned books list -- great offenders such as Toni Morrison's "Beloved," John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," and -- irony of ironies -- Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." That's right. One of the most banned books is a book about, yep, banning (and burning) books. 


Black authors seem to get special attention from book banners -- Angelou, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston. A cynic might suggest that there are people who would prefer black authors to keep their stories to themselves. 


This should remind us we are waging a never-ending war against willful ignorance. 


A person who has never read Hemingway or Steinbeck or Faulkner or Joyce or Fitzgerald or a laundry list of authors whose works are consider classics would be someone to be pitied. 


For that reason alone, the very idea of book banning should be so repulsive that we, as a society, reject it without reservation. 


That we haven't reached that conclusion shows us we still have far to go.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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