The Silencing of History

Stacks of old hardback and paperback booksBooks are powerful objects. They are talismans of knowledge, imagination, and compassion. Indeed, Charles Scribner, founder of the famous American publisher of the same name, once said, “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” A worthwhile book should challenge us and force us to consider circumstances we’ve never faced. It’s a simple yet effective way to stray outside the comfortable confines of your own mind and gradually contribute to creating a society where emboldened empathy can feed coexistence and tolerance.

That process, however, is rarely easy. The human mind has trouble thinking beyond its own experience, beyond its own wants and needs. When something seems to oppose or contradict that status quo, that something is often regarded as annoying, inflammatory or even dangerous. The irony is that, often like people, the books that most disrupt the way we view the world, that most perturb us, are the ones to which we should probably pay some extra attention. Banned Books Week is a response to that dilemma.

Celebrated annually during the final week of September, Banned Books Week began in 1982 under the direction of First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug. Since then, libraries, booksellers, universities, journalists and others have adopted the cause to raise awareness both nationwide and internationally. Every year, the campaign, which has since become a full-fledged organization, releases a list of books that were frequently challenged in the given year. For 2014-15, that list includes such works as “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “The Giver” by Lois Lowry and “The Fault in Our Stars”– author John Green’s earlier novel – “Looking for Alaska.”

It’s easy to think that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Louisville, but as recently as 2007, two parents challenged the reading of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in Eastern High School’s AP English class, claiming that the Pulitzer Prize-winning, antebellum-set novel  was inappropriate for containing bestiality, racism and sex. The principal responded by mandating teachers instruct Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” instead.

In 1994, William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” was temporarily banned at Central High School because the book uses profanity and questions the existence of God. The same work was challenged for similar reasons in two other communities elsewhere in the state as were John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

In 2003, an official of the Pontifical Council for Culture, a department founded by Pope John Paul II as an instrument to interact with the followers of the Catholic faith, deemed the Harry Potter series to contain and foster Christian values, which did nothing to stop the books from being challenged, sometimes vehemently, in virtually every state in the nation.

The Banned Books Week movement does have its detractors. Many believe that true banning does not occur in the United States because the selling of the book is never prohibited; merely its availability in schools and libraries is limited.

Camila Alire, a former president of the American Library Association, states, however, that “when the library is asked to restrict access for others, that does indeed reflect an attempt at censorship.” Chris Johnson, a 19-year employee of the Louisville Free Public Library system, claims that urban fiction and graphic novels, despite the attempts of their authors to communicate with youth, are some of the more hotly contested items due to their depictions of violence and sexuality. When a classic is challenged, Johnson states that, while there is no official training to deal with the situation, librarians are advised to politely remind patrons of the book’s history and reasons for its placement in the library system.

And that is perhaps the most significant effect of the censorship of literature: the silencing of history. As for myself, I will be taking the time this week to read noted Native American author Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award-winning “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” this year’s No. 1 banned book. I urge you to do the same. Pick a book from the list and stretch your mind. Need some help? Chris Johnson, or any librarian or bookseller, will be happy to assist. VT