|Banned Book Week
||[Sep. 27th, 2010|01:50 pm]
I don't remember much pressure to ban books when I was a kid--I know some books were banned (books for adults, not kids, and nearly always on the basis of lurid sex, as far as I know) and some parents didn't want their kids to read books I read, but nothing like the book-banning-craze that started in the late '70s (at least that's when I first noticed it) and has continued ever since. Since my mother won a round with the town librarian and got me an unrestricted card when I was about seven, it wasn't an issue--though my "inappropriate" interests (to the librarian) were all in nonfiction, not fiction, until I started reading SF at 14-15. (Early on it was reading above grade level: she wasn't going to let me read The Black Stallion because I was only in first grade. And she disapproved of my reading horse books, dog books, etc.) Little girls were not supposed to be fascinated by science, technology, military history, etc. I kept trying novels for adults, but found most of them boring until I was a teenager...and even then preferred the more "action" ones to the gooey ones. Nevil Shute's other novels (not On the Beach, which I didn't read until middle-aged) were an exception.
Yet I would never have thought of banning for others books that bored me or annoyed me or were so badly written I couldn't get through them without a handful of red pencils. Actually banning books, and burning books, were things other people did, somewhere else--and mostly in the past. That was naive: the desire to control people by controlling their access to both knowledge and opinion is both old and strong.
I live in a very conservative area, where I have heard quite a few people express approval of both book banning and (fewer, but still significant) burning "objectionable" book. I've participated in some activities designed to make banned/removed books available to young people. A few of us thought that leaving copies in places where teens hung out might work. I don't know. But it felt good at the time.
This doesn't mean I like, or think appropriate, or think well-written, all the books that others have found objectionable. I loathe upper-middle-class-male-angst books, for instance. Steinbeck's Cannery Row--interesting. The Winter of our Discontent...ick. And yet I wouldn't ban those....I just won't read them once I realize that this is another "aging boy and his tackle" book. I wouldn't ban political or economic or religious or philosophical books I disagree with. Or child-rearing books I disagree with (and boy, are there are lot of those!!) I wouldn't ban badly written books (I won't read past the first couple of pages, if they're bad enough, but I wouldn't ban them.)
The old grandmother's saying "You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die" is true of books as well as other things...reading badly-written books does not destroy your brain as long as you're also reading well-written books. If you find yourself rapidly page-turning despite being aware that the writing itself is underpowered, consider why, and learn what that bad writer did right. (C.S. Lewis made this point in some of his essays--the stylistically regrettable writer is doing something right--had some literary virtue--or he/she would not be read.) Reading one political theorist doesn't convert you to that --ism unless you stop there--unless you don't explore others. That first book can produce puppy love, but not a lifelong romance.
There are books I won't have in my own library--because I don't think they're worth the shelf space. That's a purely personal decision and I wouldn't try to have those books removed from the library, or prevent others from reading them.
It's been suggested that writers should name some banned books that were important to them and to their development as writers. I don't know which of the books important to me in the past were ever, or are now, banned. It wasn't something I paid any attention to. I'm pretty sure, since at some point I read a pretty broad range of 19th c. and first-half-of-20th c. fiction, both American and British, that something was banned somewhere, but I just don't know. Somerset Maugham used to upset people. James Joyce. Steinbeck certainly did and I read all the earlier Steinbeck, but without being told it was banned (if it was then, and not later.) Hemingway, though I didn't much like Hemingway. I read C.S. Lewis's Narnia books as an adult and was told they'd been banned somewhere because of "talking animals." I read Darwin, of course, and Origin of Species is bound to have been banned somewhere.
Reading itself--and reading without limits, whatever caught my fancy--was enormously important to me. I remember diving into the bookshelves of my mother's friends, of other kids, and of course the school and public libraries--and learning to swim in increasingly deep waters. I remember startling my mother with some of the books I brought home, and the ones I bought later, when I discovered used-book stores in Houston and then Washington, D.C. But she never said "You can't read that." It was not so much the specific books--though they all had their influence--but the freedom to explore a much larger world that I remember.
Needless to say I'm against banning books, including those books that I find personally disgusting. More people should read more books--more kinds of books, a wider range of books within each kind. Books that surprise. Books that startle. Books that turn out to be something other than you thought when you picked them up. Books by men and books by women. Books about men and books about women. Books about science, technology, history, economics, anthropology, politics, law...both elementary and highly technical. Calm, thoughtful, dispassionate books. Fervent, emotional, even fanatical books. Books that entertain and books that inform--even if the entertainment and the informing aren't perfect...what Lewis called "high-brow" and "low-brow" books.
Fill the libraries with books that create a big enough universe for those who will come to learn about it.