Last week was Banned Books Week. I spent it, in part, reading some old favorite banned classics.
My grandmother recently gave me a handful of old pictures, and the stack included a grade school yearbook of mine -- 4th grade, from 1988. I flipped through the pages with a kind of wincing remembrance -- it wasn't a great time, y'all. But then I found pictures of my school's media center (what they were calling the library at the time). And the teachers and staff who not only encouraged me to read but also shared their own love of reading with me. One of them told me that she expected me to be in the Library of Congress one day, either as a writer or a librarian.
My book is totally in the Library of Congress now.
Frankly, that was a huge highlight of the whole Being Published process.
These women, who encouraged my already-extant love of reading, never told me no or steered me away from anything. I read Bullfinch's Mythology -- and then they piled more in my arms when I came back obsessed. They let me read fiction from the section of the library that was for older kids. And we talked about what I read, whenever I got the chance.
It wasn't until high school that I really understood the concept of banned books; I went to the school library and they didn't have something I was looking for. The title isn't even relevant -- what sticks with me is the experience of standing there at the shelf where the book was SUPPOSED to be.
I was shocked. And then I was angry. And then I was determined to read all the banned books I could get my hands on. Since my reading was largely unmonitored by any adults, that wasn't as difficult as it might have been. At this point, if there's a banned books list, I've probably read most of it.
Which is why, when I checked out HuffPo's survey to find out which oft-banned book people wanted to read for their book club (can we have an xoJane book club? Y'all would ROCK a book club), I had read all four options. They aren't bad options by any means. And, by and large, they serve as excellent examples for why (in my opinion, at least) books wind up on the banned list anyway.
"The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison, is an effing classic. It's banned because it makes white people uncomfortable. It overtly illustrates the way racism and sexism can and do intersect in the lives of black women; this is not a happy book. But it is a profound and important one. The line I've seem most often quoted, the thing that people return to time and again, is that "Love is never any better than the lover." The character Claudia continues, "Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly." It took me a whole hell of a lot of therapy to learn that when, really, it was already spelled out for all of us in this book.
"The Catcher in the Rye," by J.D. Salinger, is, well, it's the holy book of every alienated emo teenaged douchebag jerkoff white dude that I ever knew. That sounds harsh, I know. But Holden Caulfield, the main character, is a 17-year-old embodiment of teenage angst and rebellion. Let me tell you, Holden Caulfield would have grown up to be a hipster living in Brooklyn. The book was banned because it acknowledges that teenagers swear and have sex -- which makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I mean, you can't be acknowledging that in a polite society, right? (That's sarcasm, by the way.) This isn't my fave book; I never liked those guys in high school and I certainly don't like them in my literature. But your mileage may vary!
One of the probably-not-appropriate-for-my-age books that I read as a middle schooler was "Boy -- Tales of Childhood." There's a lot of caning in that book. Caning, not canning. It's not about food preservation. It's about punitive spanking at English boy's schools. Ahem. ANYWAY. "The Witches" is fiction, and there's no spanking in it that I can recall. There are, however, a lot of witches. And they are legit violent and malevolent. The book was not popular with feminists -- all witches are women. But, to be fair, all ghouls are men. And neither are human. I find children are often bloodthirsty and morbid in ways that -- you guessed it -- make grownups uncomfortable.
"Nickel and Dimed," by Barbara Ehrenreich, is the only nonfiction book on the HuffPo list. It's yet another book that tends to make people uncomfortable -- it's an undercover investigative journalist's write up of what it means to be "working poor" in America after the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. This is a good book, y'all. It very much disproves the idea that we can all just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and that poor people are poor because they're doing something wrong.
Books aren't banned because they are terribly written. Nor are they banned because the authors are terrible people. (I honestly don’t know if these authors are terrible people.) Books are banned because they challenge people to think about things that are not comfortable. Books are banned because they make us re-evaluate what we think we know to be true. Books are banned because they show us ugly things that are real, when we'd rather continue to ignore reality.
Books are banned because we think kids can't handle knowing about some of the less idealized things that go on in the world.
Here's the thing: kids know. In fact, I'd say that banning books because they might negatively influence young people actively harms kids who aren't living some sort of dream where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
At the core of things, I think book banning is laziness. Not just individual laziness but CULTURAL laziness on the part of whatever segment in power thinks it is acceptable to forbid ideas instead of engage with them. It’s about not wanting to be confronted with uncomfortable truths. Rather acknowledging those things and then maybe trying to do something about it, people who try to ban books just want the evidence of the uncomfortable thing to GO AWAY.
Out of sight, out of mind.
But you can’t erase ideas (or people’s lived experiences) by just refusing to think about them. You can’t make racism and classism and violence and rebellious teenage boys go away by banning stories that feature them. In fact, for some of us, an attempt to ban a book is a red flag that we should IMMEDIATELY gain access to this book so we can read what you don’t want us to. (Welcome to the only reason I ever read Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”)
What banned books are you reading? I can’t be the only person who looks at that list and wants to Read All The Books in defiance of people saying I shouldn’t. And, seriously, book club?