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The Lusty Joys of Book-Banning

| September 25, 2011

One of the many variations on cover art for Nabokov's Lolita.

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.

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.

The Live Column

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.

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8 Responses for “The Lusty Joys of Book-Banning”

  1. Been there done that says:

    So…does this mean I can find the Bible in my school library? How about C.S Lewis’s Mere Christianity, or Fox’s Book of Martyrs? Btw, I came thru the 60’s without ever hearing of Portnoy’s Complaint.

  2. Jim Guines says:

    I am glad these fits of banning do not come around often as the ” big to do” around the Mockingbird is not clear to me, yet. I still do not understand what the board decided as new policy to prevent this from happening again. As far as I am concerned, the board in its typical fashion , left it up in a cluod of dust.

  3. Bill McGuire says:

    Truly, obscenity and unacceptable behavior lie in the eye of the beholder. As a student in High school and an avid reader, I was provided with a list of authors whose works were considered “classic,” by the school educators. One of those books was “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” I was sent to the principle’s office with said book in tow and, facing diciplinary action, I reminded them that the book was considered a classic by their own administration. After many red faces and much harumphing I was requested to take the book home and was told that it would be appreciated if I didn’t bring it to school. I complied, without ever having to play my hole card of my reading experience with Mark Twain.This issue, IMO, is yet another example of parents abrogating their duties to the school. I was always careful and solicitous of what my children read and gave them the choice of selecting what they would read, with the proviso that they would be expected to tell me the message or the plot of the book along with their opinions of the writer’s style upon finishing the book.

  4. Itchey says:

    Mr. Tristam you are so right!
    We need to Ban reading the constitution, and the Voting Ballots!
    In fact if that was on the Ballot maybe more than 41 people would show up!

  5. Liana G says:

    I have to commend our local library for being very progressive with their book selection. When I lived outside of Athens, GA several years ago, I was very much surprised to find that none of the local area libraries (Watkinsville, Bogart, Athens) carred Orwell, Steinbeck, nor Upton Sinclair, authors I wanted to check out. Even the hugh three story Athens Public Library did not have these authors, they were only available at UGA’s campus library which my library card gave me access to. But I did get a hardcover Jimmy Carter’s ‘Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’ for $1.00 after it was condemed to the discount bin shortly after its release. Lucky me!

    I don’t censor what my kids read because most of what they read are typically what the other kids are reading which is usually through Scholastic, but I do from to time pick up one of their books just to see what they’re interested in. Sometimes I would find them re-reading Frog and Toad, or Dr Seuss, Andrew Clements, or Enid Blyton just for fun. I don’t censor their reading level either.

    I am disappointed that Enid Blyton books are not popular here in the US. This was an author who got her inspiration from Louisa May Alcott and C S Lewis, and disliked the dark and evil stories of the Brothers Grimm. Enid Blyton wrote a total of 800 books for ages pre -k to young adult based on fun, laughter, mischief, exploring, and other childhood pleasures. I was raised on Enid Blyton and Tin Tin and had to purchase these books from abroad when I wanted to introduce my kids to them. They enjoyed reading them as much as I did.

    I have to say I was very glad when the media specialist finally retired at our local elementary school here in PC. That person’s disposition did nothing to encourage student reading. The kids dreaded going to the library there, and only borrowed books because they were forced to. The students costantly complained that they were not allowed to borrow books THEY wanted to read, only books that were on their reading level. I remember when one of my kid was not allowed to borrow the Harry Potter books because they were above her level. I took her to the public library and she borrowed and read them all to her heart’s content. She’s now in 8th grade with a 12th grade reading lexile. Please if the kids want to read a book let them – be glad they’re interested.

    [Apologies to Liana: the comment should not have been in moderation so long.FL ]

  6. Tobias3js says:

    Amen. Most of the time, a book is written to make an author money but sometimes a book comes along that is written because they challenge modern concepts and force us to think. These gems should never be be legally banned because somebody doesn’t like its content. If everybody subscribed to this concept then I am sure Twilight novels would be burning alongside such “great” authors like Danielle Steel and Nicholas Sparks….though I am not sure how much of them would burn because they are so vapid.

    ALSO, Parents need to learn to control what they want their children to see/read/watch for themselves. It’s that simple. Don’t want your child reading Harry Potter? Then don’t let them. You shouldn’t punish other peoples kids for your inability to control your own because of your opinions and close mindedness.

  7. Deborah Susswein says:

    Pierre, I was hoping to see the entire text of your talk online. I was at the library and drank in every word; I’d like to have the rest of it if possible.

    Also, I found in my files an interesting News-Journal article dated 1/27/10 addressing similar issues in the blind world, with Braille, the “visual” medium being affected by audio technology. Conflicting findings re: the decline (or not) of the use of Braille due to new technology and skewed research findings make for an interesting report worth following up on.

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      Deborah, as soon as I get a chance I’ll fix up the text and post it. Meanwhile I’m posting the link to the original piece I think you saw in the News-Journal, which originated in The Times. It does raise very interesting questions. The story is here.

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