The above quote is one of many on this Buzzfeed post honoring Banned Books week. Book burning is a provocative, dramatic, gut shot action. We think about Nazis torching great mountains of books, of extremist pastors burning the Koran. I was in a group in college that, once a year, stole a biography of Oliver Cromwell from the library and burnt it to ashes. Books are burnt to eradicate ideas, to do violence to ideologies of the Other, to destroy the memory of a history that we don’t approve of. But, like many dramatic displays of strength, it is born out of fear. In trying to appear strong, book burners are in fact demonstrating their weakness. They do not have sufficient faith in their own convictions to pit them against others on a level playing field, so they do violence to those ideas instead.
Book burning is a public act, and as such easily inspires fervent opposition. But as Bradbury points out in the above quote, “there is more than one way to burn a book,” ways that fly under the radar, ways that are far more pervasive. Banning books, removing them from libraries or schools or bookstores, may not have the same dramatic flair of flame and ash, but it does the same violence to ideas, and arguably does it more efficiently. Burnings inspire backlash, but bannings often go unnoticed, which is exactly why Banned Books Week is so important.
Consider this list of banned and challenged books. According to the article, the most common reasons for pulling a book are “sex, profanity and racism,” and in most cases the books were banned or challenged in schools and school libraries. Now, I should say that I vigorously support the right of a parent to decide what is and is not appropriate for their child. Parents can and should decide what books are appropriate, what TV shows and movies are appropriate, what music is appropriate. What they should not do is make that decision for other people’s children. I have two elementary school age children. I realize how much of a task it is to monitor what they read, watch, and listen to. But that is my job, and not the job of someone who has decided that a book is inappropriate for their child. In addition, it is important to me that my children, as they grow, be introduced to an ever widening field of reality, and that is going to include things like sex, profanity, racism, violence, etc. It is important that they know these things exist, and have had the opportunity to learn about them and talk about them with their father and me. If they go out into the adult world with no knowledge or understanding of these things, then I have not done right by them.
Take a look at that list again. I can almost guarantee you that there are books on there to which you would say “…yeah, I’d want to ban that, too.” For me it’s Fifty Shades of Gray, for reasons I could write a whole post about (dangerous misrepresentation of BDSM, glorifying sex without consent, making it the woman’s job to put up with abuse in order to “fix” the man…ugh. I could go on, but you get my point). That’s one of the things that’s dangerous about censorship in general, and one of the reasons to aggressively counter it. I think we all know, on an intellectual level at least, that when we allow for an idea we don’t like to be quashed, we open the door for the eventual quashing of our own ideas. Yet we all think, “but it’s just this one. The world will be so much better without this one book.”
That’s the match. The one Ray Bradbury talks about. And it’s a match that we all hold. Maybe you believe the book in front of you demeans women. Maybe you believe it promotes fascism, or lauds Oliver Cromwell, who was a murderous bastard (I might not agree with the practice of burning his biography every year, but I agree wholeheartedly with the condemnation of the man). You hold the match that will rid the world of that book. But next to you is someone who holds the match to destroy Romeo and Juliet, because they don’t approve of the sex and violence. Next to them is someone who holds the match to destroy The Kite Runner, because of a graphic rape scene.
Banned Books Week reminds us to blow out our match. To meet challenging books with our ideas and not our fire. To engage our children as they grow and engage the world, in all the beauty and the ugliness of truth.
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Dear reader, what is your favorite “banned (or challenged) book”? Mine is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s not on this year’s list, but I’ve seen it on lists in the past, and there was a fair amount of controversy when it was assigned for my AP English class, because of the sex, violence, and incest. It remains one of my favorite books, period.