The Lusty Joys of Book-Banning
Pierre Tristam | September 25, 2011
FlaglerLive Editor Pierre Tristam will be delivering the Friends of the Library’s Banned Book Week address at the Flagler County Public Library Monday, Sept. 26, at 2 p.m. It’s a free event. There will be bad words. Here’s an excerpt.
I don’t believe in Banned Book Week because I don’t believe in banned books, at least not in the conventional sense that the American Library Association defines it. There is no such thing as a banned book in America these days. We’ve been very good about talking about banned books, this piece being a case in point, and in attempting to ban books, but we’ve failed miserably at it in reality, and not just recently.
- Top 100 Challenged or Banned Books, 2000-2009
- In Her Own Words, Please: A Friend of Harper Lee’s Pleads the Case Against Censors
- More Power to Principals, Less Transparency as Board Kills Policy Inspired by Mockingbird
- Banned Book Week 2010
A banned book is a book that’s not available to someone who would like to read it. But if you want a particular book, it won’t matter who’s banning it: you can get that book. Every book that’s been banned is more than ever available in one way or another, usually for pennies, thanks to Amazon and other online booksellers. It is literally impossible to ban a book in America anymore, at least not in the open.
Of course parents are the biggest book-banners this side of the Gulag Archipelago, but just as Portnoy’s Complaint ended up under the mattress of every healthy adolescent not yet drafted in 1969, children these days have a way of getting their hands on what they want, with or without liver. Unfortunately, it’s not books like Portnoy’s complaint that get banned anymore, it’s Harry Potter and Gossip Girl that end up as contraband under the mattresses of children in the very best Christian homes. Libraries and school boards obviously continue to ban books, too.
But their acts are more political and symbolic than effective. They don’t ban books so much as pander to those who would by attempting to limit the placement and use of certain books or plays. The bans only serve to make those who enact them look like the foolish but limited censors they usually are.
Even in Flagler County, when the school board initially banned “To Kill a Mockingbird,” there never was a question that the book could be read, even under the noses of the school district banning it. High schools were still teaching the book and libraries were still circulating it, and of course the local bookstore was still selling it. The difference was twofold. Here was a chance for the public to see the play staged in its entirety for the first time in Flagler County, and by a drama club that had until then not exactly been known for trying out challenging plays. And here was someone, somewhere, who didn’t want it staged out of fear that the word nigger, spoken every day innumerably in our school’s hallways and classrooms, might start a riot because it would be spoken a few times in the context of the tender prose of Harper Lee under the floodlights of the Flagler Auditorium, for an admission price of $8 to $12. If Spike Lee movies never started a riot, a Harper Lee children’s book rendered for the stage certainly wasn’t about to, especially not in a county that can’t get excited about anything more than the Matanzas-FPC football games. It was an absurd fear. The school board finally recognized it as such and got past it. The play was staged, the word was spoken, and audiences responded only with acclaim, giving Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird” another local boost.
That’s what usually happens. There is no quicker way to jack up the circulation of a book than to ban it, at least in societies like ours where banning something, whether it’s drugs, booze, sex or books, is advertising by other means.
What we’ve always done very well is make books irrelevant, which is a far greater danger to literature and ideas than book-banning. The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, The Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Lolita are all among the top ten most banned books in the United States, but who really reads those books anymore? My guess is that students are jubilant when the books do get banned, because it’s one less classic they have to struggle with. These days the books that do get banned aren’t even that interesting.
Books are being banned because words like shit, piss, fuck, nigger and kike, and because two boys kiss, though horrific violence gets a bye. They’re being banned because the atheist doesn’t die a horrific death at the end, and because fictional vampires somehow offend Christian sensibilities. In the past 10 years, 1,536 challenges to books in the United States were due to “sexually explicit” material and 1,231 to “offensive language.” (Violence is way down the list.)
I can understand why you’d want to ban the Twilight series, which has consistently appeared on banned-book lists in the last few years. I’d ban it because the quality of the writing is an offense to the senses, and those endless teen-age stares into the void remind me of the way my adolescent daughter looks at me when she’s trying to figure out what kind of illegal alien I am in her life. But that’s not the reason Twilight is getting banned, of course, even though it’s basically a textbook for abstinence-only education. It’s getting banned because cartoonish vampires could be interpreted by teenyboppers as having more interesting powers than God’s.
There will always be parents who’ll want to impose their bookless wit on the rest of us. But those efforts are by definition the best way to give books a higher profile. That’s why book-banning gives me pleasure. It’s as important to our dying culture of books as forest fires are to the regeneration of our forests. So I welcome book-banning, and I’ve been thinking about turning Banned Book Week on its head. Instead of marking banned book week once a year for seven days, I think the best thing libraries, booksellers and schools can do is to agree to ban one book per week, 52 weeks a year. Banning books could be the last great hope for books, especially when books are up against so many enemies—among them, incidentally, the very libraries that claim to speak in their defense.