Banning books gives us silence when we need speech. It closes our ears when we need to listen. It makes us blind when we need sight.
– Stephen Chlosky
A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation on WhatsApp with a friend about books. She asked me if I had heard about To Kill a Mockingbird. At that point, I hadn’t, so asked what specifically I should have heard.
She told me, “That it’s been taken off the school reading list in Mississippi. Because some of the language makes people uncomfortable. I have no words.”
I thought about it, and replied, “Excuse me, I need to go and bang my head against a wall for a moment.”
I find the issue of banning books both intriguing and frightening. Intriguing because it fascinates me as to why people deem books to be too dangerous for the general public to be trusted to read them, and frightening because censorship is always something to be carefully considered and wary of.
In no particular order, books that have at some point been banned somewhere include: The Bible, Huckleberry Finn, The Communist Manifesto, The Call of the Wild, Of Mice and Men, Green Eggs and Ham, American Psycho, Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Ulysses, All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Catcher in the Rye and The Anarchist’s Cookbook.
Although I don’t support the banning of books, I can understand why people have got themselves in such a state over a couple of the ones listed here.
Fifty Shades of Grey is truly terrible.
The problem – for those doing the banning, at least – is that banning a book just gives it even more power, because there is absolutely no more reliable way of getting people to read a book than by telling them they can’t.
Except maybe putting JK Rowling’s name on it.
Banning books tells people that, first off, there’s something in that book that someone doesn’t want them to know, or an idea that they fear being released into the wild. However, human nature being what it is, tell someone that they can’t do something, or that they shouldn’t do something, or hint at some form of forbidden knowledge, and people will fight tooth and nail to get at it. Sometimes this is out of curiosity – what’s the secret and is it really that bad? And sometimes it’s out of a determination not to allow someone else – usually some form of authority figure – to curtail their freedom by telling them what they can and can’t read.
Essentially, telling people what they can and cannot read is telling them what they can and cannot think. Most of us would agree that the rule of law which governs our actions is, generally speaking, a good thing. Of course, there are some fairly absurd laws in force. Here in the UK, for example, it’s still illegal to be drunk in a pub (yes, really), for MPs to wear armour in Parliament, or to queue jump in the Tube ticket hall. However, the majority of laws are there for a very good reason. And, whilst many us will hold strong and understandable views about what people should and should not think, opening up the possibility of trying to control what people think can lead society into a very dark and dangerous place. Those who have read 1984 will see where Orwell envisaged this kind of thinking leading.
Ironic, perhaps, that 1984 has itself been banned from schools and libraries.
Part of the problem is that the banning of books is not usually because they contain something truly dangerous or illegal, but as a knee-jerk reaction to themes or ideas contained within those books, books which those demanding the banning have often not read. Sometimes those intentions are well-meaning, misguided attempts at protecting children from difficult realities such as bullying, drug addiction and racism. But attempting to ban books which deal with those issues doesn’t help matters. Banning books for containing certain ideas and addressing certain issues doesn’t help deal with those issues in the real world, and doesn’t equip either children or adults for encountering them in real life. It doesn’t highlight them, it doesn’t challenge them, it doesn’t demand change. It only sweeps them under the carpet, and pretends that they don’t exist.
Books do more than simply tells us stories, provide us with entertainment or teach us cold hard facts. They teach us about the world that other people live in, people who are not like us. They teach us about the world we live in, and the world we don’t, about the world that other people live in every day.
Banning books shows the privilege of the people demanding the banning. Children who are only exposed to violence in books are incredibly fortunate; perhaps those demanding the banning of books should be more concerned with the very real violence that too many children face. Banning books that confront racism only sweeps the reality of racism under the carpet and allows the privileged to continue pretending that racism is no longer an issue. In today’s world, with the internet and social media, it’s getting harder and harder for people to ignore important matters of social justice. However, despite how excellent a blog post or how powerful and relevant a Tweet or Facebook post may be, and many of them are and do amazing work in addressing difficult issues, I am a great believer in the role that books play in educating ourselves on important matters, whether those books are fictional or autobiographical. I believe that fiction especially creates a safe space in which to begin exploring the realities of those issues in a way which is not too terrifying or overwhelming.
Banning books does nothing to educate people about the realities of life. Banning books only protects the privileged few and allows them to continue to pretend that they don’t exist and, if they don’t exist, then no one needs do anything about them.
Copyright © Sarah Jayne Tanner 2017
For more of Sarah Jayne Tanner’s work, check out her blog: Confessions of a Bookworm
Sarah’s debut novel, Defiance, is available now on Amazon Kindle: http://amzn.eu/8hlSA65
IN A WORLD OF INJUSTICE, DEFIANCE IS THE ONLY OPTION.
Down in the city’s underbelly, Noah, a smart-mouthed combat fighter, has been sold against his will to Dream Scenarios, an exclusive organisation specialising in body-switching technology. Stripped of his freedom and forced to cater to the whims of the elite, Noah cannot resign himself to life as a puppet of Dream Scenarios and its wealthy clientele.