Last week was one of the most anticipated weeks for book lovers: Banned Books Week. The week’s events, from Sept. 25 — Oct. 2, celebrate the freedom to read. Authors, readers, and supporters of titles that have been added to various banned lists across the country join together to engage audiences in literary discourse and enlightenment.
Each fall when this controversial week rolls around, I am reminded of my own experiences with book censorship. My junior year of high school, our class was assigned Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The book is a futuristic novel about a dystopian society ruled by racist men who overthrew the United States government. Women are subjugated, and society is designed to mimic a distorted interpretation of the Bible. The protagonist is a slave whose main purpose is to breed, thus her title as a handmaid, an allusion to the servant in the Old Testament story of Hagar.
The father of one of the students in my class was outraged when he read some excerpts from the text and demanded the book be removed from all libraries and reading lists in the school district. He approached the school board and claimed the material to be religiously offensive, sexually graphic, and blatantly violent. Hundreds of community members rallied together in support of, and against the book’s banning. The controversy attracted radio stations, TV broadcasts, and newspapers.
When the public hearing was held, the district office was packed with concerned community members. The building was at capacity before the board members took their seats; the walls were lined with people eager to voice their opinions. Dozens of teachers, students, community leaders, and parents (myself included) presented their arguments before the district council.
The hearing lasted until midnight. After hours of fervent speeches, the decision was announced to keep The Handmaid’s Tale on the list. It was reasoned that the text could be considered graphic for some audiences, but not for upper-level high school students. The text warned of the consequences of immorality and intolerance, two very real issues that our society deals with today. Explicit, and perhaps offensive, content was written to jolt readers into realizing the destructive path of our frivolous and close-minded lifestyles.
It was a small victory for our school district, but a huge triumph for the resilience of books. Institutions, whether religious or government, have been censoring literature for centuries. From the book burnings of ancient Greece to the book banning of the past few decades, silencing the voices of writers is not a new practice.
This censorship defeats the purpose of written word. Books are written to inform, to inspire, to influence. Most importantly, books are written to be read. Denying people the right to read denies people the freedom to think. Censoring titles because they are “too graphic” or “too suggestive” cripples the minds of readers, limiting their exposure to new ideas and thoughts.
From classic titles like The Catcher and the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird to modern fads like the Harry Potter series and the Twilight series, the offended have called for the banning of titles they deem as inappropriate. But perhaps content must push the limits to evoke emotion or to create new worlds. Removing a book from the hands of eager readers does not serve to protect, it instead threatens creativity.
Banned Book Week commemorates the hundreds of titles that have been added to banned lists. Book banning, and the celebrations associated with it, actually promotes reading of the work. When controversy is ignited, the interests of the public are sparked as well. Banned Book Week provokes thought and calls special attention to those texts that may offend some, but certainly enlighten many.
“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”
– Benjamin Franklin, 1730