In a very eloquent video for the 30th annual Banned Books Week, Bill Moyer said, “Censorship is the enemy of truth, even more than a lie. A lie can be exposed; censorship can prevent us from knowing the difference.”
I have to admit that until last week, I had never actually heard of BBW. I had almost forgotten, in fact, that books still get banned; I’ve always lived in such open communities that the news reports about things like Harry Potter getting banned seemed so strange and distant, like something that was itself happening in a story. And according to Jonah Goldberg, writing for USA Today, it may just as well be a story. “It denigrates the United States as a backward, censorial country when it’s anything but. It demeans parents and other citizens who take an interest in the schools,” he says.
Goldberg raises some interesting points, but I’m not sure I agree with him—and not just because there are several aspects of US society that can be a bit censorial (just look at the MPAA or the FCC), or because saying, “Make this go away” isn’t exactly my idea of taking an interest in schools. Finding out about Banned Books Week didn’t make me immediately think, “Oh, man, this must be a problem in every school in the country!” Instead, when I looked at the BBW website, my eyes stuck on the subtitle, which says in fairly large letters: “Celebrating the Freedom to Read: Sept. 30 – Oct. 6, 2012.”
And maybe I should have been thinking about the books currently being challenged— they have lists of the top 10 most challenged by year—but instead I was sort of laughing to myself about the way that library censorship has failed over the years. Just check out the list of books from Radcliffe Publishing Course’s Top 100 novels of the 20th century that have been banned, burned, or challenged. I can’t even count how many books on this list I’ve read, either in school or otherwise. Lord of the Rings was burned in New Mexico, and I honestly cannot imagine my life without Lord of the Rings, it was that significant a part of my childhood. Kurt Vonnegut is on that list several times, and I have a number of friends who practically swear by his name.
People out there felt so negatively about these books that they tried to prevent them from being read, and yet many of these books have ended up being canonized, literally speaking. Who knows, the bans and challenges may even have kicked up such a fuss that they increased the profile of the books in question.
And it’s a testament to the power of books, in its own way—not only their ability to survive in the face of people trying to smack them down like a game of whack-a-mole, but in the fear that people have of the written word. Because why else ban books but for their fabled power over the human mind? Why try to prevent someone from reading a novel unless you believe it can change them somehow?
Which, of course, completely disregards the fact that people can react to the same book in radically different ways—we don’t just passively accept everything that media is trying to tell us—but is almost reassuring, in a sense. Not that I mean to say that the history of censorship is reassuring, but the world is kind of a screwed-up place. It’s nice to think that at least we have books on our side.
(Bookman’s bookstore, by the way, made a fantastic video made for Banned Books Week, if you’re interested.)