Make no mistake about it – we are at war. Only these battles are taking place in classrooms, school board meetings, libraries, and educational institutions around the world. This war will determine whether we have the right to decide what we are allowed to read, what we are allowed to think, and what knowledge we have the right to. If you think that comparing censorship and banning books to war is too much, think again. Throughout history, governments that have banned/burned books have been among the cruelest and most vile. Is this what we really want? Do we want our government or small groups of extremists deciding what can and can’t be taught? This controlling action takes thought-provoking and, in many instances, life-changing books out of the hands of students. Why?
The book Nazis always have excuses ready to explain their behavior, and I’ve heard them all. Phrases like “The book is racist”, “The book encourages sinful behavior”, and “The book is anti-American” are tossed around to inflame people and make them think that reading whatever book is the target will turn our children into communist, racist, immoral pagans.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
But here’s the truth. Every country, city, and state, like every person, has a past. And sometimes those pasts are happy and beautiful and carefree. Sometimes, they are dark and scary. Sometimes terrible things happened and awful things were said. But banning a book doesn’t change any of that. And the thought that doing so will make people forget history is the most terrifying part of all of this. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Therefore, it is obvious that banning a book to prevent something is akin to insisting the events never happened in the first place.
I’ve always loved to read. Some of my fondest childhood memories are going to hear the “Story Lady” at the LaPorte County Library. If the word coming to your mind is nerd, you’d be right. Book Nerd and proud! I LOVE BOOKS, all kind of books, even the ones that some people view as “bad”. As a child, I was insulated from all of drama that surrounded a group of extremists trying to get a book banned. My parents were educators, and I was encouraged to read as much and as many books as I could. I was taught that knowledge is power, and anyone who tries to limit what you can learn only wants to keep the control and power to themselves.
Used the Lord’s name in V-E-I-N
When I became a teacher, I quickly learned that not everyone was as open-minded and free-thinking as my family. In my first year, I taught Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. It was on the district’s required reading list, and I didn’t think twice about it. Then came the conference with the irate parent who had prepared a letter to the school board because we were teaching a book that “used the Lord’s name in V-E-I-N.” Yep, I can’t make stuff like this up. When I tried to have a rational conversation about the content of the novel and what she thought about the story line, her reply was “I don’t read trash. I just went through it and circled the bad words.” Okay, I don’t know how to communicate with someone like that because I’m pretty sure that any word I used with over two syllables would have thrown her.
Next came the conference with the parent who had the objection to the racial slurs in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Now, I remember reading Huckleberry Finn in middle school and being shocked by the cruelty that was rampant throughout the novel. I was horrified by the treatment of, not only Jim, but of Huck as well. However, that didn’t make me want to suddenly become a racist and be prejudiced against those who were poor. The part that stood out to me and still touches my heart is when Huck is willing to go to Hell to defend Jim. Why would he think that? Because that was what he had been taught – by society, school, and the church. When I brought up that scene and numerous others, once again I was confronted with someone who had not read the book, but instead had only seen the “bad” words in it.
It isn’t always “bad” words that puts a book or story in the cross-hairs of these individuals and groups. I’ve had challenges about Harry Potter (It teaches witchcraft and that’s the devil’s work), “The Lottery” (It gave precious pumpkin bad dreams, although this was the kid who read Stephen King all the time), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (My daughter doesn’t know about that kind of filth), “Romeo and Juliet” (I don’t want to give her ideas), The Diary of Anne Frank (You don’t honestly believe the Holocaust happened, do you?), and Animal Farm (Making animals talk goes against The Bible). Unfortunately, I could go on, but you get the gist of it.
These individuals and groups challenge certain books that contain ideas, themes, or language that conflict with their personal beliefs and values. And herein lies the crux of the matter. Do certain individuals or groups have the right to determine the values and beliefs for others, or is it up to the individual to make those decisions? In the cases of the parents I mentioned earlier, I must ask you, are these the type of people you want deciding what your child is taught?
For just a moment, consider the Nazis. They began by burning books written by those they considered inferior or by those who disagreed with their beliefs. Of course, we would all automatically assume that books by Jews were burned, and we would be right. But, also included in the mass burnings were books by Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Lenin, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Upton Sinclair, Stalin, and Leon Trotsky. Basically, anyone who did not agree with Nazi beliefs and values. When we justify the banning of books, that is what we are allowing our society to become. Is that what we want?
This always reminds me of the scene in “Footloose” where the church members have raided the library and are burning every book they don’t like. John Lithgow, who plays the pastor, comes running over and stops them. That scene, where he looks around and sees what the hatred and divisiveness has to his flock and his town is one of the best in the movie. (Next to Kevin Bacon trying to teach Chris Penn how to dance.)
Banning books and/or burning books is how you systematically destroy entire cultures. Whenever the Nazis invaded a country, they stole the artwork and destroyed the libraries. When they were on the brink of losing the war, they began to systematically burn the art. And that is what destroys a culture and the even the memory of a culture. This is what happens when we allow books to be banned.
So what happens now? What do we do? How do we fight back against the ignorance and fear that will lead to the destruction of our great works of literature?