Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Banned Books Week 2010

Banned Books Week 2010 started this past Saturday and ends on Saturday, October 2nd. You can get more information about local events and suggested activities here and here (this year's press kit is pictured above). You can also check in with your local library. (Update: Per request, here's the page for downloading the press kit. The direct PDF link is here.)

My archive on banned books is here. If you write a post celebrating Banned Books Week or intellectual freedom, write me an e-mail or leave a comment below, and I'll include it in the roundup at the bottom.

The American Library Association helpfully explains "What's the difference between a challenge and a banning?":

A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. 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. Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.

These are important distinctions. There's nothing wrong with criticizing a book on aesthetic or other grounds, but it's quite another thing to try to deny other people the right to read it. Parents can choose that their child can't check out a book from the library, but they don't get to decide that for every other child, and certainly not for every other adult. For school curriculums, it can get a bit trickier, but such things as age-appropriateness are typically discussed at length. Parents (the most common objectors) have a voice, and while the specific laws and guidelines vary by state, county or school system, parental opt-outs are commonly available.

Perhaps more importantly, when a book is taught in the curriculum, it is discussed in class with students. Parents can also discuss it with their kids. The same goes for books checked out of the library - parents can discuss it with their kids, or not let their kids check a book out. Art is capable of saying more than one thing at a time, and stories often contain ambiguity and room for interpretation. These factors make literal or authoritarian-minded people uncomfortable, but they're pretty unavoidable if you study literature and poetry. It's common for English curriculums in secondary education to try to foster critical thinking skills and a tolerance for ambiguity. Parents who think of education as indoctrination - or who favor indoctrination, only the type they want – tend not to understand or like that.

I'm not dismissive of parental anxieties, but as with questions brought up by students in class, normally they can be addressed. Racial slurs in Huck Finn, The Elephant Man and Invisible Man can and are discussed in the classroom, and that's usually a better, safer place to do so. The reality is that parental discomfort generally emerges when a parent doesn't want to discuss something with their kid. Age and maturity are legitimate issues, of course, but teenagers are often more mature or informed than their parents admit. It's that same maturity, not the lack of it, that can further unnerve an anxious parent. Navigating all this is an important part of growing up for students, and a crucial part of good parenting for the parents. Challenging a book is often just a proxy for deeper issues. (During my brief teaching stints, I ran into parental anxiety occasionally, but that's probably a subject for a separate post. I will say some of the most memorable conversations I had with parents involved them copping to that anxiety and resolving to treat their teen as more of an adult. I found it remarkable and admirable.)

The list of the "Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009" boasts some familiar faces:

Out of 460 challenges as reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom

1. “TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs

2. “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: Homosexuality

3. “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Anti-Family, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide

4. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee
Reasons: Racism, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

6. “Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger _Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

7. “My Sister’s Keeper,” by Jodi Picoult _Reasons: Sexism, Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide, Violence

8. “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things,” by Carolyn Mackler
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

9. “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

10. “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier
Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Meanwhile, I always enjoy reading the lists of banned and challenged classics, and the reasons they were challenged.

This year, though, I wanted to highlight the National Council of Teachers of English's position piece, "The Right to Read and the Teacher of English." It was originally written in 1981, although it has been edited and updated since:

For many years, American schools have been pressured to restrict or deny students access to books or periodicals deemed objectionable by some individual or group on moral, political, religious, ethnic, racial, or philosophical grounds. These pressures have mounted in recent years, and English teachers have no reason to believe they will diminish. The fight against censorship is a continuing series of skirmishes, not a pitched battle leading to a final victory over censorship.

We can safely make two statements about censorship: first, any work is potentially open to attack by someone, somewhere, sometime, for some reason; second, censorship is often arbitrary and irrational. For example, classics traditionally used in English classrooms have been accused of containing obscene, heretical, or subversive elements. What English teacher could anticipate judgments such as the following--judgments characteristic of those made by many would-be censors:

• Plato's Republic: "This book is un-Christian."

• George Eliot's Silas Marner; "You can't prove what that dirty old man is doing with that child between chapters."

• Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days: "Very unfavorable to Mormons."

• Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter: "A filthy book."

• Shakespeare's Macbeth: "Too violent for children today."

• Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment: "Serves as a poor model for young people."

• Herman Melville's Moby Dick: "Contains homosexuality."

Modern works, even more than the classics, are criticized as "filthy," "un-American," "overly realistic," and "anti-war." Some books have been attacked merely for being "controversial," suggesting that for some people the purpose of education is not the investigation of ideas but rather the indoctrination of certain set beliefs and standards. The following statements represent complaints typical of those made against modern works of literature:

• J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: "A dreadful, dreary recital of sickness, sordidness, and sadism." (Without much question, Salinger's book has been for some time the most widely censored book in the United States.)

• Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five: "Its repetitious obscenity and immorality merely degrade and defile, teaching nothing."

• Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird: "The word rape is used several times. Children should not see this in any literature book."

Some groups and individuals have also raised objections to literature written specifically for young people. As long as novels intended for young people stayed at the intellectual and emotional level of A Date for Marcy or A Touchdown for Thunderbird High, censors could forego criticism. But many contemporary novels for adolescents focus on the real world of young people--drugs, premarital sex, alcoholism, divorce, high school gangs, school dropouts, racism, violence, and sensuality. English teachers willing to defend the classics and modern literature must be prepared to give equally spirited defense to serious and worthwhile adolescent novels.

Literature about ethnic or racial minorities remains "controversial" or "objectionable" to many adults...

Read the rest. (I'm guessing the Hawthorne haters won't be going to see Easy A.) The ALA site gives much more information on the reasons given for challenging books. While some of the funniest examples are decades old, some are fairly recent.

Two later sections from the NCTE statement deserve attention. The first is a quotation it cites:

Where suspicion fills the air and holds scholars in line for fear of their jobs, there can be no exercise of the free intellect. . . . A problem can no longer be pursued with impunity to its edges. Fear stalks the classroom. The teacher is no longer a stimulant to adventurous thinking; she becomes instead a pipe line for safe and sound information. A deadening dogma takes the place of free inquiry. Instruction tends to become sterile; pursuit of knowledge is discouraged; discussion often leaves off where it should begin.

- Justice William O. Douglas, United States Supreme Court: Adler v. Board of Education, 1951.

The NCTE statement continues:

The right to read, like all rights guaranteed or implied within our constitutional tradition, can be used wisely or foolishly. In many ways, education is an effort to improve the quality of choices open to all students. But to deny the freedom of choice in fear that it may be unwisely used is to destroy the freedom itself. For this reason, we respect the right of individuals to be selective in their own reading. But for the same reason, we oppose efforts of individuals or groups to limit the freedom of choice of others or to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large.

The right of any individual not just to read but to read whatever he or she wants to read is basic to a democratic society. This right is based on an assumption that the educated possess judgment and understanding and can be trusted with the determination of their own actions. In effect, the reader is freed from the bonds of chance. The reader is not limited by birth, geographic location, or time, since reading allows meeting people, debating philosophies, and experiencing events far beyond the narrow confines of an individual's own existence.

In selecting books for reading by young people, English teachers consider the contribution which each work may make to the education of the reader, its aesthetic value, its honesty, its readability for a particular group of students, and its appeal to adolescents. English teachers, however, may use different works for different purposes. The criteria for choosing a work to be read by an entire class are somewhat different from the criteria for choosing works to be read by small groups...

As this last paragraph captures, teachers generally devote significant thought and discussion to their reading lists and their students' needs. Meanwhile, the right to read and the ability to think critically are both essential for a healthy democracy. In a previous year, I discussed the samizdat tradition of underground, forbidden literature, memorably portrayed in the great German film, The Lives of Others. Things have never gotten as bad here in the United States, but in the past few years, we've had a prominent political candidate who sought to ban books, and several groups have threatened to or actually burned books. The freedom to read shouldn't be taken for granted.

Celebrate Banned Books Week!

Banned Books Week Roundup

I'll update this section throughout the week, if and when I learn about other posts.

Kicking it off is Mister Tristan, describing re-reading Huckleberry Finn in "Exercise Your First Amendment Rights - Read a Banned Book!"

Cheyanne's Campsite urges you to "Read All The Banned Books 'Cause You Know They've Got To Be Good."

Mister Tristan returns, like a high plains drifter, to offer a contest - "FREE BOOK: Richard Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Blue Gal helped spread the word on Banned Books Week, and asks, "Does anyone have a photograph of Sarah Palin or any other tea party associate reading an actual book?"

Gary Farber at Obsidian Wings and Tengrain subbing at Crooks and Liars also helped spread the word, as did Common Dreams.

While not strictly written for Banned Books Week, Lance Mannion's "Apologies for Oompa-Loompas" is very much on point.

Finally, i09 provides a fantastic round-up of "10 great science fiction novels that have been banned." (Hat tip Ursus.) I wrote about one of them, Fahrenheit 451 - no irony there, no sirree - for Banned Books Week in a previous year.

Thanks to all who celebrated banned and challenged books this year.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

Could you please post the direct link to the press kit? Ironically, my reading comprehension skills seem to be failing me.

Batocchio said...

No problem. I've updated the first paragraph for the press kit links.

Porlock Junior said...

Huck Finn? Heck, Finn, without the censors I might not have read the book in high school. That would have been unfortunate.

1958, if you'll cast your mind back. New York banned the book (or at least some bit of NY took it off the reading lists), which made the national news. Was this the first time it was attacked for "nigger" rather than for vulgarities like "sweat"? I don't know, but a quick search in Google shows me -- well, nothing about the early history of that sort of attack. Odd.

Anyway, it had been banned, so of course I had to pick it from the reading list of my high school, far from that action. Well worth it, of course. Good book. Easy ready-made topic to build the Book Report around!

It's now the fourth or fifth most banned book. Sheesh.

Good news: something is being banned because it sounds racist, not because it's too openly anti-racist. Progress!

Bad news: Good guys are still about as stupid as bad guys. At least nobody put out a fatwa offering a bounty for assassinating Hal Holbrook.

Gary...a relative of Mister Tristan said...

"...like a high plains drifter..."

I love that intro to my link, which I consider to be a compliment. One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Clint Eastwood (but I don't know if that's true or not): "The more insecure a man is, the more likely he is to have extreme prejudices."

Appropo to Banned Books Week, I'd say.

I've gotten several entries to my FREE BOOK contest...should be interesting!