Grace Prosniewski: Banned Books Week reminds us of censorship past and present

By Grace Prosniewski , Daily Literary Columnist
Published September 29, 2014

Another week, another literary-based campaign for my fellow bibliophiles and I to relish in. Last week marked the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, an event that brings together librarians, teachers and readers to celebrate the freedom to read, and call attention to censorship.

Banned Books Week started in 1982 as a response to an explosion of challenges to books in schools and libraries. And thus Banned Books Week came to join the 1984 Detroit Tigers, John Hughes movies and the destruction of disco as the only good things to come out of the 80s.

And if you think that book banning is a thing of the past, think again. In 2013, most states had reported challenges: Texas, Oregon and North Carolina led the way with over ten challenges each. In fact, Texas had 114 book challenges in total. Oh Texas, do you ever turn down?

So why do people continue to try to ban books? Well if you can tune out the shrill cries of “Won’t somebody think of the children!” the answer is the same as it’s always been. People use censorship as a way of maintaining and asserting their own moral and/or ideological view by condemning any challenge or critique of their position that could pose a threat. Basically, when you control books, you control information. Bonus points if you read that last line like Newman from Seinfeld.

Sometimes the reasons given for a challenge are comically bizarre, specifically on the grounds of occultism. Excuse me if I think it a bit far-fetched that dark religious orders are trying to lure children into depravity with works such as “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Giver” and, of course, everybody’s favorite subtly-promoting-satanism poster boy, “Harry Potter.” Never mind that “Harry Potter” inspired in an entire generation a love of reading, or that the essential point of the entire series is that good conquers evil, and love is more powerful than hate. No, any form of magic, regardless of its contextual basis, equals an affiliation with those pesky satanists (#evangelicalthoughtprocess).

Then there are the challenges that are so painfully ironic, they too are almost laughable. “Fahrenheit 451,” an entire novel dedicated to exposing the problematic nature of censorship of dissent and book burning, has been challenged for obscenity and for a description of a Bible being burned. It’s a metaphor, you potato with eyes! Dystopian novels, such as “1984” and “Brave New World,” are, in general, great fodder for banning, as their anti-authoritarian themes blatantly question the status quo.

Of course, there are the book challenges that are also down right baffling. “The Wizard of Oz” has been challenged throughout the last century for numerous reasons, including for depicting women in strong leadership roles. Dorothy tries to lean-in and she gets banned? Even “Anne Frank: The Dairy of a Young Girl” was challenged for some sexually explicit detail. So the heartbreaking and yet inspiring true story of a girl who hid from the Nazis for two years and still believed in the innate goodness of people is tossed out because of a few lines about sexual anatomy? Don’t mind me, I’ll just be continually banging my head against the wall.

Now the truly dangerous book challenges are the ones that seem almost understandable. “The Da Vinci Code,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Twilight”: Are they god-awful? Yes, most emphatically, yes. Is reading any one of them akin to drowning in a cesspool of poorly written prose and terribly problematic characters and themes? Again, yes. But do they deserve to be banned? No, because, as Noam Chomsky said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” You got lucky this time, Meyer.

The three most common reasons for a book to be challenged are if it is sexually explicit, contains offensive language or is unsuited for the age group.

From our Puritan forefathers to our loony lawmakers, Americans love to lose their minds over sex, namely by banning works that even remotely touch on the subject. And of course, teenagers would never, ever think about sex without direct prodding from John Green, that bespectacled scoundrel. In fact, a book doesn’t even need to mention sex to get challenged for obscenity, as was the case for “The Scarlet Letter.” Now look, I’m a pretty tolerant person, but when someone goes after Nathaniel Hawthorne, well even I have my limits.

One of the most frequently banned books is, I kid you not, “Captain Underpants.” Please, if you ever feel the urge to crusade against a children’s chapter book for its mention of undergarments, go to your mirror and take a long, hard look at yourself. Even critically acclaimed works like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” have been challenged and subsequently banned for offensive language.

The just-vague-enough claim of a book being unsuited to age group operates as both a catchall and a cop-out. It’s the thing a challenger claims when they don’t have another leg to stand on. What makes them qualified to speak for an entire age group they’re not a part of and realistically only have antidotal information of said group to draw from? Oh right, nothing.

If you don’t want your children exposed to certain themes and thus certain books, fine. I don’t agree, but it’s your life/progeny. I’m not going to force feed your children controversial books in some sort of Clockwork Orange-esque scenario. But libraries and schools aren’t here to comfort your ignorance. To deny someone else a book based on your personal sensitivities is the height of sanctimonious presumption. In short, stop being a tool, and read banned books.