Banned Books Week, beginning today and ending on Saturday, October 3rd, celebrates “the freedom to read.” Since 1982, Banned Books Week has highlighted books that have been challenged or banned for various reasons.
I adore Banned Books Week, because, frankly, it gives great reading lists. Most banned book lists are full of best sellers and classics, since pretty much anything that is interesting at all is going to offend someone at some time. Honestly. I happen to be reading Moby Dick this week, which made the list because a Texas school district banned the book from its Advanced English class lists because it “conflicted with their community values” in 1996.
Also, I think Banned Books Week appeals to the rebel in all of us. Hey, you can’t tell me what to do! Well, know what? If that gets people wanting to read, that’s fine by me. Most things that highlight literacy are good things.
But what constitutes a banned or challenged book? According to the American Library Association, “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice.”
At first glance, this seems pretty simple and a bit chilling,but look more carefully. Restricting access to materials and attempting to remove books from curriculum are not necessarily the same as burning books in a bonfire or raiding the Library of Alexandria. Here is where things get a bit murky. What EXACTLY does that mean? Othello might be great reading material for High School students but isn’t necessarily age appropriate for elementary school children. Taking a book off a school’s required reading list or curriculum doesn’t necessarily restrict the material to those who want to read it, merely says that the students aren’t required to read that material.
That said, there are some appalling examples of books being treated abominably. A frequent tactic to remove materials is to simply check out a book and not return it, thereby restricting its access to other library patrons. This is STEALING in order to bypass the process already in place by the community. Think about that. They want to remove dangerous ideas, namely books, by stealing materials from the community.
Another example is the the 1973 burning of 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut, by the head of a North Dakota school board. The author responded with a beautifully worded letter, stating “Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.” I’m not a fan of Vonnegut’s writing in general, but I can’t imagine a better response to such a senseless act.
So how are you going to “celebrate” Banned Books Week? I usually either write a blog post (CHECK) or read a book on one of the lists. Picking a book this way is a great way to break out of my reading comfort zone and maybe expand my literary horizons.
If you are wondering how to find out more or where to get materials, why not start with your local library? Can’t get there? Well, if you are reading this, odds are you have access to the internet and can request a book digitally through your local library’s website. If you own a smartphone, you can download the OverDrive app (or whatever one works for your library) and use it to digitally check out ebooks on your mobile device. Instant gratification! What’s not to love?
Other free online resources are Project Gutenberg, which offers free digital copies of public domain works, and Librivox, which offers free public domain audiobooks. You could also volunteer to contribute your time to either of these wonderful organizations. I’m currently volunteering to read for Librivox, and it’s easy as well as tons of fun! Another great resource for downloading free literature is manybooks.net, which offers free public domain and creative commons ebooks in multiple formats. And last but not least, the Banned Books Week site, the American Library Association site, and Twitter (#bannedbooksweek) will be sure to have tons of resources. So, go forth, fair Literary Warrior.