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Monday, October 01, 2007

Banned Books Week

The following is aqn op-ed piece I wrote for the Bryan/College Station Eagle on Banned Books Week and the right to read.

Eleventh grade was an important year in my education. In English class we studied great American novels and in Social Studies we studied books that changed the world. A sample of books from that year included Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” Sallinger’s “A Catcher in the Rye,” Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” These are books that contain powerful ideas.

They are all books that have been banned by authorities. Someone somewhere has declared these books to contain dangerous ideas and decided that people need to be protected from them.

The intellectual freedoms contained in the First Amendment of our constitution are among our most precious, but easily taken for granted. We don’t see our freedom eroding because the attacks are not always on what we can say, but on what we can read. To maintain our intellectual freedom requires not only that individuals have the right to hold and express any idea, but that our society be committed to providing unrestricted access to ideas, regardless of the medium of expression, the content, or the viewpoint of the author. Our intellectual freedom is lost when either our freedom of expression is denied or when our access to ideas is stifled.

It’s easy to believe our intellectual freedom is strong when Columbia University provides a platform for Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Is it not the pinnacle of free speech that we can permit expression of ideas we detest? Certainly Americans have more freedom than Iranians. Ahmadinejad is leader of a country in which censorship is pervasive and an instrument of government. No one believes that Iran’s censorship of information on women’s rights, freedom of speech, and democracy is anything but a measure to suppress the citizenry and prop up the government.

When it comes to intellectual freedom, we cannot allow ourselves to fall into complacency. The attacks on our freedom to read don’t come from despots intent on suppressing their population but from ordinary citizens armed with the best of intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas. The attacks come from all sorts of people and groups, of all viewpoints, who attempt to suppress anything or anyone who disagrees with their own beliefs.

Nat Hentoff, author of Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other, writes that the lust to suppress can come from any direction.

According to the American Library Association, which keeps track of challenges to books, parents make more challenges than any other group. The top three reasons for challenges to material are that the material is “sexually explicit,” contains “offensive language,” or is” unsuited to age group.”

In 2006, The American Library Association recorded a total of 546 challenges. A challenge is the attempt to remove or exclude a book based on the objections of some group or individual who file a formal complaint with a library or school. It is estimated that for every challenge reported, four or five challenges go unreported. A banning is the removal of the book.

The most frequently challenged book in 2006 was an award-winning children’s book “And Tango Makes Three,” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. The book tells the story of two male penguins who parent an egg from a mixed sex couple. Supposedly based on a factual event at the New York Zoo, the book was challenged because it teaches children that a non-traditional family is okay. Two books by Toni Morrison made the top ten because of offensive language and sexual content. Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate War,” also made the top ten list for offensive language and violence.

Bryan and College Station libraries have had their share of complaints, but the most recent challenge happened more than a decade ago. The book, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” by Roald Dahl, tells the story of a fox that steals chickens ducks and turkeys from three mean farmers in order to feed his family. It was challenged because the fox outsmarted humans and won through laziness and cunning rather than hard work. It missed being banned from College Station school libraries by one vote of the school board.

Certainly parents have the duty to rear children responsibly, to teach children how to distinguish good ideas from bad. If parents want to shield children from expression of certain ideas they must assume that responsibility themselves and not expect government institutions to decide what a child should or should not read. If a child borrows something from a library that a parent believes is inappropriate, they can return the material and use the expertise of the librarians to locate the material they prefer. Attempts to remove the material from the shelves, to keep others from reading it, hurt us all.

Librarians have been active in keeping books on shelves, in defending our right to read, but even though challenges are not often successful, they can have a chilling effect on our freedom. As Judy Blume, herself an author whose books have been frequently challenged says, “[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.”

The freedom to read is essential to democracy. An assault on the books we can read is a threat to our country as certainly as an attack from a foreign enemy. Freedoms that are eroded are lost as surely as freedoms that are taken by force.

Our local libraries are celebrating Banned Books Week September 29 to October 6. This is your chance to be a patriot. Visit a library or bookstore and read a book; explore ideas that challenge you. Take a child and encourage him or her to fall in love with a book. The best defense of our freedoms is to exercise them.