Monday 1 October 2012

On the Subject of Banning...

**Warning - this will turn into a rant**

In America from September 30th - October 6th it is Banned Books Week. I know that I live in a country where in the library service at least book banning is not really an issue (although you can read an interesting article here about why it may be in the future), but even so we still have quite a history of book banning (and burning?!), and in America the amount to which books are challenged and banned in libraries and in schools is both ridiculous and awful. I spent the morning looking through lists of the most banned and challenged books and was absolutely amazed at how many awesome books are on it. The one that most amazed me is that on all the lists I've looked at, sat right up close to the top is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, possibly one of the most moving and motivating books I've ever read. Every single time I read it I put it down wanting to right all of the worlds' wrongs and just make sure everybody is happy and treated fairly. Idealistic? Me? Never. The book is frequently challenged because of its' 'racism', and this is a subject which is bothering me massively at the moment. As with the dispute about the censored version of Huckleberry Finn and Disney's refusal to release Song of the South on DVD due to its' racist overtones, I think that some people are missing the major point. You cannot and should not censor something for being either a representation of the time in which it was made, or for (as TKAM does) trying to get people to challenge themselves and think about what is the right and wrong way to live your life. The issues are much bigger than race, and by banning these things we are just trying to pretend that things with which we are uncomfortable never happened.

It would be lovely if a lot of things never happened, try slavery, genocide and the Holocaust for starters. It would be wonderful if nobody in the world ever behaved in a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-semitic or otherwise offensive way. It would be brilliant, but unfortunately it isn't human nature. I've had conversations with people in recent memory who just don't understand that because they're white/a man/straight/Christian it doesn't make them any better than other people. The mind boggles, it really does, but how are we doing future generations any favours by trying to hide that these people are there, that we live in a world where these things have happened? If we ban them and forget about them then what's to stop them happening again? Every time I read To Kill a Mockingbird it reinforces the absolute wrongness of making assumptions about people based on any stereotype about them, whether it be the colour of their skin, like Tom Robinson, or their supposed mental deficiencies, like Boo Radley. Humanity cannot move forward by trying to repress things it is uncomfortable with, and parents cannot stop their children from finding out about things they're too uncomfortable to discuss with them by getting books banned from their schools, libraries etc.

I am British, and the Empire was a pretty bad thing. We really didn't do well there, but nobody as far as I'm aware has tried to ban books like A Passage to India and Heart of Darkness. We were also pretty much the first people to use concentration camps, and then there's the BNP (who apparently aren't racist, but you need to be white to join..). So yeah, our slate is not the cleanest, but is there any point in denying it happened? It's still contributed a huge amount to the way the country is today - if it wasn't for the Empire, we wouldn't have tea. It's a shocking thought. I do not understand what it is that people are trying to achieve by banning books. If you find a book offensive, don't read it. Personally, I was so disgusted by American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis that I physically could not finish reading it. It made me nauseous and I have some serious worries about the man's mental health, but I'm not going to go out ranting about it and trying to stop other people from reading it. I gave my abandoned copy to a friend who wanted to read it, because she's a grown up and she wanted to read it. Also, there's always the chance that he was being ironic or making some big socially important point that I just failed to get, and I wouldn't want to deny other people the chance to get it just becaue it repelled me.

As well as people who want books banned because they are personally offended by them, there are the even more incomprehensible people who want books banned without ever having read them. It's like when my dad wouldn't let us watch The Simpsons (which he had never seen an episode of) because his friend told him it discouraged the traditional family unit. Then he watched an episode and realised, actually, that's total crap. Homer and Marge are one of the most solid family units ever - they always work it out in the end. A little off-topic I know, but how can you possibly find something so offensive you must immediately ensure that everybody in the vicinity is unable to read it, without ever having read it yourself? Also if you start telling people what they can and can't read, where does it stop? Soon you'll be telling them what they can eat, watch, where they can go, what religion they can practice. That's called a dictatorship, and I don't think there are many people on the planet who would volunteer to live in one of those.

None of these things that are challenged for being racist or whatever are actually promoting racism as a good idea. For me, that's where the problem would come in, because I don't like things - and this doesn't just apply to books, but to films, events, and even to people- which promote hatred in any form. People manage enough of it on their own, they don't need encouragement. Of the American Library Association's list of most challenged books 2000-2009, I've read twenty two (counting series as individuals for now), and I don't remember a single one of them in any negative light. Yes, some of them were a little silly (Angus, Thongs & Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, for example, which I read when I was about fifteen because it came free with one of those teenage girl type magazines), and some of them are more than a bit weird (In the Night Kitchen is on my baby's bookshelf but the fact that the child is miscellaneously naked all the way through slightly unnerves me. Although it was read to me as a child and doesn't seem to have done me any harm...), but many of them are among my personal favourites, and I'd go so far as to say that a few at least - Catcher in the Rye, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and To Kill a Mockingbird - have been lifechanging for me. I was going to talk about specific books in this post, but I feel like it's probably already long enough and if you've stuck with me this far you probably deserve a medal.

I feel like it's really important to go on and on about this and to shout about it, because the fact that it isn't a problem in the UK at the moment doesn't mean that it won't be. Literacy is already under threat in the UK due to the mass closures/redistributions of libraries and, as mentioned in the article I linked at the beginning of this, the fact that when libraries become (as a great number are) volunteer run, there is the risk of pressure being brought by different groups for the removal of things they find offensive. Everybody should be able to read whatever they want to read. I really do believe that. As my tagline says 'once you learn to read you will be forever free', and nobody should be trying to take that freedom from you. Yes, read things that are age appropriate, and no don't read things if they upset you. But don't not read them because they upset your next door neighbour/priest/teacher/parent (although the last one is a little more subject to opinion). Reading is personal and it should stay personal. If I want to shout about books I've read and loved or hated, that's what I have my blog for, it's what I have friends for and family. Books are a gift, and they should never be taken away from anyone. I believe that the gift of reading was among the greatest my parents ever gave me (I recently thanked them for reading to me all the time as a child - they looked at me like I was mad), and I hope that it's one I can pass on to my children.

I will probably be posting some more on censorship and book banning this week, because I like research and I have a bee in my bonnet now. In case you want to know more, here are some useful links:

The Banned Books Week Website - official website telling you all about events and what's going on for the 30th anniversary year.

The American Library Association - this link will take you specifically to the Banned and Challenged Books section of the ALA's website, where you can find links to the most challenged books lists, information about Banned Books Week, and merchandise to support it.

Banned Books UK - the smaller, UK based version, containing a list of 100 banned and challenged titles from around the world, because this problem isn't just American or British, it's worldwide.


  1. This post is wonderful, Bex! You're damned right, no one has the right to dictate what another person reads, watches, eats, does in the bedroom, or anything else. Unless it's against the law, or you're the parent of a young child and imposing your restrictions on THAT CHILD ONLY, then sorry... but no.

    When I was a kid, I read all kinds of books. Books that had challenging themes, books that were silly and super-girlie, books about sweeping romances, books that made me cry... Sure, some of them were probably a bit over my head, or had racy bits in them, but if I came across something I really didn't understand or was too scary or violent for me, I was sensible enough to put it down and move on. I'm very grateful that my parents and librarians allowed me to discover those things for myself!

    Books I love off the banned list? The Outsiders shaped a swathe of my teen years. Of Mice and Men blew me away, and I'd never have chosen to read a Steinbeck otherwise. The Perks of Being a Wallflower... well, let's just say I wish I'd read it much earlier. These are the kinds of thought-provoking, ground-breaking books that shape people, that turn their worlds upside down, and denying them that is just... unfathomable to me.

    *coughs and blushes* Er, what were you saying about ranting? :)

    1. Hehe I'm glad I'm not the only one ranting! I'm still waiting to get to The Perks of Being a Wallflower - my copy is lost in the ether of my house and I'm hoping it turns up soon.

      I think it's really important that you can develop the ability to censor yourself in a way. To know what you like and what you want to read and what you don't. Personal choice, not banning!!

      I was talking to my mum about this today and she was saying the same pretty much - that you quite often learn about important stuff through reading books with challenging themes, so if you stop people from reading then where are they going to be able to learn about and explore their thoughts on things?