Happy Banned Books Week!!!
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|Wed, 09-27-2006 - 9:11am|
Clowns & Harlots: An American Tradition
by Christopher Corbett
It's Banned Books Week, brought to you by the American Library Association, which for a quarter of a century has been doggedly fighting the good fight against that all-American itch to censor. Censorship is an old tradition, a custom as familiar in the time of Cotton Mather as in the age of Jerry Falwell.
Naturally a country that prides itself on its cherished freedoms and spreads democracy around the globe would observe Banned Books Week. Makes sense to me. We are busy showing the benighted the righteous path. Meanwhile — if you can believe the ALA, and who would doubt the librarians? — the urge to ban books is as robust as ever.
The banning of books is an American tradition. You don't hear much about anyone actually trying to burn a witch these days (not that I want to give anyone any ideas) but book banning is older than the country. It has followed us from the time of simple hand-set printing press on to the information superhighway and the era of the Internet.
Americans (or at least a good number of Americans) love to curl up with a good book and figure out how to make sure that no one else gets to curl up with that book. The impulse to ban books can in fact lead to burning books. It is a curious one. Although fundamentalists of all stripes tend to be in the vanguard, they are not the only ones who wish to ban books. Persons of all colors like to ban books. And of all creeds, too. It appeals to the homegrown fascist.
Most often a person who wishes to ban a book may be thought to be a person incapable of thought. If you are the first member of your family to walk erect and wear shoes then quite naturally book banning might appeal to you. But you don't have to be a moron. You merely need to be rigid, fixed in your thinking. It helps immensely if you believe that you are doing the work of the Lord. God wants this book banned. He told me.
So every year the nation's librarians monitor the banning of books from sea to shining sea, from purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plains, across amber waves of grain and all that. Book banning appears to know no geographic boundaries. It is as possible in a Chicago suburb as in the wilds of Arkansas.
Although many of the most frequently banned books tend to be juvenile titles that many older readers will not be familiar with — and some of these are classics. Who does not know Mark Twain, John Steinbeck or J.D. Salinger? I am glad to report that although they no longer lead the field, these distinguished American writers continue to be among the most often banned.
Book banning is plainly a grave assault on the First Amendment; in other words, it is unconstitutional. A person who is capable of such a thing is truly a danger. We worry about terrorism abroad but what of terrorism here? A mind capable of banning books is surely as dangerous as a man with a box cutter.
According to the ALA, rubes and yahoos in this country have banned Chaucer, Aristophanes, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Boccaccio, Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.
The Radcliffe Publishing Course, the ALA notes, has a list of the 100 most important novels of the past century ˆ naturally, nearly half of those — 42 of the 100 have been banned somewhere. These include such sinful works as The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Sun Also Rises and All the King's Men.
A cursory glance would indicate that S-E-X is the culprit. Sex is the great boogey man, the serpent in paradise. It is ever lurking. Any hint is sinful. Attempts to inform children about simple matters of reproduction or human sexuality are plainly dangerous.
In the past decade — 1990–2000 — there were 6,364 challenges issued against books in America, according to the ALA. But the grim news is that research by librarians suggests that for each challenge reported there may be as many as four or five which go unreported.
Lists of banned books make no sense to the casual reader, for according to the ALA, somehow Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen (that's a children's book) and The New Joy of Gay Sex can both wind up on the same watch list. Go figure: To Kill A Mockingbird and Heather Has Two Mommies (that last one is about lesbians, and we know how the Lord feels about those gals), Where's Waldo (also for kids) and American Psycho (not for kids) … As the man says, I‚m not making this up.
The scope of this selection is breathtaking and alarming. It seems to the casual glance the work of pranksters. This has to be a hoax, a kind of Saturday Night Live sketch. Fodder for Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. But it's not.
Naturally, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World — savage satirical novels that look at what a totalitarian future might hold — make the list. Orwell and Huxley would have expected nothing less. Nice touch, that.
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