Everyone has their pet hot-button issues. I have quite a few of them, actually, because that’s the kind of annoying, self-righteous gal I am. But if there is one issue that is guaranteed to fire me up fastest and with the most indignation, it’s book banning. I can’t stand it. In any of its forms - banning, censoring, burning. It’s all part and parcel of the same act. Whether it’s bullying a library to remove a book from its shelves or publicly lighting on fire books by which one is offended, people attempting taking away from other people the right and responsibility to make up their own minds pretty much sucks.
Fortunately for all of you who were hoping to see me all fired up, we just so happen to be wrapping up 2010’s Banned Books Week. This last week of September is set aside to discuss books that have been challenged and in some cases removed from libraries and bookstores across the US. As far as the majority of these books go, for most enlightened, civilized folks, defending them isn’t that difficult. I mean, seriously, getting outraged over Catcher in the Rye is so quaint I can hardly believe anyone can do it with a straight face these days. And And Tango Makes Three, a.k.a. the gay penguin book? If you’re not a bigot and/or crazy penguin-hater, it’s not really a problem. Twilight? Okay, maybe I think there are better things you could be reading than that. But, at age nine, I read pretty much every Babysitter’s Club book that ever existed three times over and I still survived to become a relatively unscathed adult. It’s not worth it to pull Twilight off of the shelf completely and literally take that decision out of someone else’s hands.
But there’s the rub, right? This is all easy enough when the books in question fit our values, or at the least seem harmless against them. But when we encounter those books that are less worthwhile, it becomes more complicated. And less worthwhile books are certainly out there. There are books that have virtually no educational or artistic value, and there are books that promote misinformation and agendas of the most despicable kind. Surely we have to draw the line somewhere? We do, but this is a good place to employ one of the most famous quotes about speech censorship, by Clare Booth Luce: “Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but, unlike charity, it should end there.” We can, ideally, all agree to pick and choose according to our individual preferences and opinions and let others do the same.
That is, I believe, the essential message of Banned Books Week, and it’s a good one. However, I’d like to add another message to the occasion. Instead of just letting books that we don’t want sit on the shelf rather than destroying them, what if we start challenging people to pick those up too? Instead of treating books as ends in themselves (which they are, which is good), I think it would be interesting if we also considered them more as means to another end - namely, stretching, exercising and shaping the capabilities of our brains. This goes more to the heart of why books are important to value and protect in the first place. Books are more than the sum of the words they contain. They’re tools for learning how to understand and relate to the world around us, as well as tools for learning how to change it.
Inherent in that is a lesson even us enlightened, civilized, book-reading folks can stand to be reminded of periodically - if we want to keep our minds in shape, we need to challenge ourselves with our reading choices. Not only does that continue our own progressions, it’s a great example for those who still need to pick up the habit.
Read the Bible. Read the Qur’an. Read Shakespeare, Twain and Wilde. Read Sagan. Read Salinger. Read Bradbury. Read Orwell, Rand and Marx. Read Hawking, Dawkins and Rushdie. Read Twilight. Read Harry Potter and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Just read. Read everything you can get your hands on - and, in this day and age, that’s virtually limitless. Read what challenges you, what bores you, what upsets you, not only so that you can learn more about it, but so you can develop those mental muscles that examine, process and decide. Just like training your body to run a marathon, you can’t train your mind to reason without pushing it past its current comfort limits. Read so you can learn to think for yourself.
Then once you’ve got that down, go out and fight like hell so that everyone else can do the exact same thing. Stand up against book banning, book desecration, book censorship. Whether or not you believe these collections of paper and printed words have any inherent symbolic worth, the fact is you can’t stop all of those who would destroy them. And they’re out there. You can’t personally restock all library shelves or physically pull books out of the hands of every single person who would rip them to shreds. So maybe the only thing you can do is to hold up a book as a symbol of the individual human capacity for reason, thought and progress. And fight for that. I protect books - all books, even books I don’t like - because, otherwise, I feel I’m betraying that. If we never take the risk of allowing repulsive or useless ideas to print and propagate, we’ll never develop a population that knows how to come up with something better. We will just continue building on ignorance.
Somewhere out there, there are people whose lives have been enriched, shaped and maybe even saved by books. I know, because I’m one of them. They’re important to me not just for what they contain, but for what they’ve taught me to do. I grew up without religion and without much family. I was often alone, and the only constant that has remained throughout my life is the written word. Because of books - good books, bad books and every kind of book in between - I know how find and evaluate information, ask questions and come to my own conclusions. That’s an essential part of who I am, and that’s what I think about each time Banned Books Week rolls around.
So, now that the week is over - let’s go out and read. We might disagree with some of the ideas you find, or we might not like the books we see others reading. But that’s good. That means it’s working. Let’s keep doing it.
Cross-posted on Skepchick.