Ideas do not die, for better or for worse. They might move sideways, into history, a dusty trinket to be occasionally unearthed and peered at (“re-examined” if the idea is fortunate) by scholars, but they never leave us. For some this notion is hard to accept: shall we have racism, say, with us forever? But for others this is a beautiful cycle, in which ideas, like seeds, are handed on to each successive generation to be planted and nurtured anew.
The bizarre conceit behind banning books is that ideas are mortal, or at least controllable. Connected to that is fear. Yes, ideas are frightening – just look at what some people believe! – but it is the job of everyone to face and understand them. Children who are not exposed to complex or challenging ideas grow up into adults who are unable to explain them to their own children. Ignorance and bias become transmittable. Critical thinking is not taught in schools, so children grow up without the faculties to separate out nonsensical ideas. I am writing about the USA, which is the only corner of the world I know well enough to generalize about.
Once a year many people wear their heart on their sleeve about book banning. It’s a symbolic gesture, but symbols have their uses. In a way, because of the attention, this is the least important week of the year so far as books are concerned. But this is that week, and so I’ll highlight a few notable banned books here. If you haven’t read them, this would be a good time to start.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s story has faced multiple attempts at bans over the years. Both the book and the 1939 MGM movie have been attacked; click here for a summary of various attempts on bankbooks.world.edu . I usually start with Oz when discussing banned books because The Wonderful Wizard was one of my favorite books growing up. The original illustrator of the books, W. W. Denslow, was among the first artists whose life and career I studied. I think the Oz books were instrumental in shaping my belief that all books should be illustrated. Despite the concerns of parents and school administrators, I never became a Satanist or believed that lions could talk because of exposure to the Oz series. Somehow, I don’t think Frank Baum would be disappointed; that wasn’t exactly his intention.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning memoir of life in Iran and elsewhere during the 1980s and 90s. A graphic novel that is worthy of the term, it was adapted into an equally well-received animated film. First published in 2 volumes, they were later issued as a single volume; the film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. A recent attempt at banning Persepolis is detailed here on bannedbooksweek.org .
The Catcher in the Rye: perhaps I’m choosing easy ones, but J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel seems to leave readers no middle ground. You either love it or hate it. I happen to fall into the second camp, largely because I find the narrator, Holden Caulfield, annoying. However, Salinger was a writer of distinction and great craft, and I see no need to ban his book just because I dislike a character. What happens in books, even non-fiction books, is in a way untrue, because all stories are told for best effect and from a particular viewpoint. The saying “history is written by the victors,” regardless of whoever first coined it (opinion is divided), is true. People who fear what is untrue usually end up losing to it. Critical thinking and examination allows us to sort the truth from stories – most times, anyway. All this is a lead-in to writing that if I had not chosen Salinger I would have chosen Salman Rushdie’s 1900 novel The Satanic Verses, because of the storms of controversy surrounding it. I myself feel no harm from having read either book; if L. Frank Baum couldn’t corrupt me, what chance do these guys have?
UPDATE: I should not let Banned Books Week go by without a more insidious kind of censorship, perpetrated by those who feel they have a right to decide what other people can or cannot read. II mean people who go to public libraries and steal books – not for their own enjoyment, but to keep these books out of others’ hands. A while back I wanted to read The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. With no offense to the good folk at Melville House, which published the book, it wasn’t something I really wanted to own, but I felt a duty to read it. So, off to my local library. The catalog said it was on the shelf, but my own efforts plus those of two librarians turned up nothing. One librarian was unsurprised, and spoke of how people would remove books whose viewpoint they did not agree with. Their entire supply of books on Wicca had to b kept behind the desk, or else they would vanish from the shelves, never to be seen again. To those holier-than-thou types, who feel they have a right to control what others are reading, I repeat what I wrote earlier: Ideas do not die. You cannot kill them. You will lose, as all censorship loses in the end.