- Ray Bradbury, FAHRENHEIT 451
Sometimes I don't know who's worse: right-wing censors or left-wing censors. The right-wingers tackle books like THE CHOCOLATE WAR and THE WITCHES with God on their side: God would not want these books to be read. (Sounds like Khomeini denouncing THE SATANIC VERSES.) The left-wingers are more slippery ... and more dangerous, because they hide behind a veneer of political correctness and gobbledygook about "diversity." Their objections are waffly: "The book doesn't offend me, but it may offend blacks/gays/women." In other words, "It offends me, but I'd never be so unhip as to admit it."
Censors want to save us from ourselves. Fortunately, they can't. What can save us is literature, especially in this degraded Electronic Era, and Banned Books Week was created in part to put a sexy spin of drama and controversy on an increasingly neglected pastime. It is a noble, sneaky way to put long-unread great books in the spotlight. But it also sheds light on the continuing efforts of the censors to take away your freedom of choice (and freedom of expression).
Parents are the worst offenders. As you read this, a book you enjoyed as a child is probably under attack at some library or school -- in this country, right now! -- for being satanic, humanistic, racist, sexist ... the usual suspects. The strongest weapon of the censors is the spectre of innocent children being scarred by evil books. Save our children from literature! Fearful parents seeking absolute control over their kids' reading also want to control what your kids read.
Distracted modern Americans may still think of censorship as something quaint and dated, something that might've happened down south in the '30s, but certainly not here, not now. They don't still burn books, do they? Maybe not in all cases, but the suppression of free thought is still a reality. Angry, frightened people still march into libraries and schools and bookstores, demanding that a pernicious book be swept off the shelf into oblivion.
If you think it can't happen here in our enlightened Bay State (where "witches" were once hanged) ... or substitute the progressive state you live in ... well, think again.
- THE CHOCOLATE WAR was challenged at an Orleans, MA school in 1995 due to "profanity and sexually explicit language"
- JEWISH HISTORY, JEWISH RELIGION was challenged at the Milford Library in 1995 for -- get this -- anti-Semitism
- THE HANDMAID'S TALE got booted from a Chicopee high-school reading list in 1993 "because it contains profanity and sex"
- HALLOWEEN ABC was challenged at the Sandwich Public Library in 1995 because it was considered "too violent for young children"
- DADDY'S ROOMMATE, a harmless children's book about a gay father, was challenged at a Seekonk library in 1993; HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES, its lesbian counterpart, was challenged in an Oak Bluffs school library in 1994
...And so on.
Please note that these dates are not 1902 or even 1955. This is happening now.
Even if it never happens in your town, its occurrence elsewhere may affect your freedom of choice. A librarian or teacher may decide not to buy or teach a book because it's caused too much fuss in the next county. This is known as pre-emptive, or self-applied, censorship. The fear of righteous pressure is regrettable but understandable. Librarians who buy a controversial new book for the collection may hold their breath, dreading shrill confrontations or worse.
The great irony of censorship, at least in this country, is that it produces the exact opposite result. In the first half of this century, when such books as TROPIC OF CANCER and NAKED LUNCH were judged obscene, hipsters went out of their way to dig up contraband copies. More recently, dry and largely unreadable books like THE SATANIC VERSES and AMERICAN PSYCHO gained readers almost solely because of their notoriety, their outlaw status.
People who want to suppress art -- and here I expand the word to include film, music, literature, photography, sculpture, performance art -- are really looking to freeze the culture in amber. Stop satanism! Stop sexism! Save our children! Cumulatively, some art may aggravate our problems, or at least not do much to help them, but only an idiot would argue that art causes the problems. For that, we should look to the economy, look to consumerism, look to an increasing sense of powerlessness and callousness. Look in the mirror, too.
Censors are blind in more ways than one. The fundamentalist who wants an Aleister Crowley book yanked from the stacks (ironically, if he waits long enough, someone will steal it anyway) somehow doesn't see the library's books on Christianity, the serious spiritual works by Thomas Merton. The feminist who calls for a boycott of a store carrying AMERICAN PSYCHO doesn't see their books by Alice Walker and Margaret Atwood. Libraries and bookshops -- houses of ideas -- are not obligated to reflect our values exclusively. The recognition of different points of view is part of our country's great democratic ideal. That, in essence, is what we remind ourselves this week.
To the extent that Banned Books Week celebrates free artistic expression, it must also celebrate subversion. Reading is a subversive act: You enter a world, swim around in a sea of values that may be totally alien to your own. The problem is, too many people appoint themselves lifeguards, blowing the whistle and telling us all it's unsafe to swim. We are free to read any of these books or none of them; we are free to embrace or reject them; we are free to argue about their relevance and worth. The point is, we are free. Many others the world over are not. This week we take note of that freedom, and take advantage of that freedom for our own reading pleasure. But we can never -- not even in 1998, not even in America -- take that freedom for granted.