This week is Banned Books Week, wherein books that have been banned in some way or another are discussed, as is the concept of book banning itself. One of the brilliant librarians at my library created this display
and I can't believe how it's got people interacting with and discussing books. The most common thing I've hear is some variation of "wait, this book has been banned? But I've read this book and loved it!" I've seen five or six people, seemingly strangers, gathered around the display, lifting the bags to see what's inside of them, and then discussing the books.
And checking them out!
This is deeply satisfying to me because it accomplishes the exact opposite of what an attempt to ban a book sets out to achieve: "protecting" the world from a story. Banning simply calls attention to the book; it raises awareness of it and inflames the reader's inner rebel. It creates a dialogue between the book and society.
People's attempts to ban books are both deeply offensive and deeply ridiculous to me. Ridiculous because of what I've observed with that display in the library: people lifting off the brown bags to find out more about something that someone would like to keep secret
The reason banning is offensive goes deeper than paradox, however.
While there are many books I just cannot abide (books that the populace loves), the thought of working that hard to keep a book from a reader just doesn't make sense. Much of the pleasure of reading is wrapped up in the pleasure of choosing: perusing a shelf (be it a literal or a digital one), picking what to read based on a cover image or the book blurb or a random paragraph that sucked you in. But also the choice to continue reading: do I stick with these characters, this plot? Do I choose to immerse myself in this particular world, or to return it and try something different? (Do I choose to flip to the back and read the ending because I cannot bear not knowing what happens?)
Not every book fits every reader. Not every reader will love every book. That's partly why we have so many: different tastes, different needs. Some people read to have their worldview confirmed, others read to have it challenged. Some read to find themselves and some read to find the Other (and some read to find the Self in the Other). Some read for the beauty of the writing and some read for plot; for some readers, the mystery is what reading is and for others, language.
Or some combination of all of those. Or maybe even none of those; I can only really explain my motivations for reading. But choice itself is part of the process. Book banners seek to limit choice; they try to say that their motivations for reading are the only universal reasons for reading. And, generally, it seems that the reading motivation of people who try to ban books is to find only the stories that mirror back how they think life should look. If it looks different from theirs, they perceive it as dangerous.
That is why banning books is offensive to me: it seeks to control. It seeks to say "only I have the answers." It says "there is only one experience, and that is the experience that I know." Book banning seeks to limit the perceptions of an entire society down to the beliefs of a few.
It is an impulse that is based entirely on fear.
Fear of the Other. Fear of difference. Fear of difficult experiences. Fear of truth, fear that the thing one believes to be truth is, in fact, false. And choices or actions that are based in fear rarely produce fantastic results.
Many banned books do include fearful content. They question faith, god, religion, belief, and spiritual ways of being. They discuss and describe sexual acts. They describe rape, violence, the lingering aftermath of racial and gender prejudice. They explore the strange and insular paths that some people find themselves on. They seek to bring these things to light not to praise them but to explore them. To understand them. This is because bad, difficult, painful, ugly things happen. Beautiful and magnificent and magical things do, too. Writing about them—reading about them—doesn't make them happen. But it doesn't make them not happen, either.
Sure—don't get me wrong. There are myriad books full of disgusting things. Full of violation and violence. There are books that explore the very darkest parts of humanity, with no other purpose than to admire the ugliness.
But I don't think that even those books should be banned.
Because just like the library patrons have been doing all week (well: for as long as libraries have existed), books and readers are about interaction. You sit still, reading, but you still act. You still choose. You are in control: keep reading, stop reading. I want to put that choice in my hands, always. I want to teach the power of that choice to my children and to the patrons I help at the library.
You can pick up a book and start reading it. For any number of reasons, you can fall in love with the book or you can despise it or even feel indifferent to it. But whether you choose to keep reading it—that is up to you. And you should make that choice for yourself.
We readers are intrepid. We go all over the world, the universe, even to places that don't exist at all. We plunge in to and out of all sorts of different lives. The beautiful things help us see and understand the beauty in the lives we live, even if it is an entirely different sort of beauty. The questions that characters explore help us look more deeply at our truths and in this way understand them more fully. The difficult experiences either mirror our own or help us understand other people's sorrows. By choosing to read we choose to experience all of humanity and by doing so become better people.
In all of that reading there is understanding, but without the choice to read, none of the understanding can happen.
So go ahead. Don't be afraid. Lift the bag off.
Read a book.