We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.
–John F. Kennedy, February 26, 1962
Late September marks the beginning of fall, but it also signifies another annual event: Banned Books Week. Primarily sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA), Banned Books Week spotlights texts that have been removed from public and school libraries, or have been censored in other forms. As I wrote last year, parents and other interested parties have requested that certain books be removed from libraries and curricula, usually for “information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular,” according to the Banned Books Week website. Typically these include religion, politics, and sexuality—controversial issues guaranteed to unsettle. But should a few people deem what is acceptable for a community or school to read?
In 2010, 348 challenges were reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom, although 70 to 80 percent of cases go unreported each year. As usual, the most frequently challenged books are puzzling—the top ten for last year includes Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (“reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit”); Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (“drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint”); the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (“sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence, unsuited to age group”); and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (“offensive language, racism, religious viewpoint, sex education, sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group”). Alarmingly, more than 11,000 books have been challenged since the Banned Books Week event began in 1982; many of these banned books include classic literature such as The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm.
To mark the occasion this year, readers are invited to post a YouTube video of themselves reading aloud an excerpt from a banned book. Entries are limited to two minutes each, and must meet criteria listed on the new Banned Books Week website. These brief clips will then be posted to the “Virtual Read-Out” YouTube channel; many videos are already available for viewing. In addition, frequently challenged author Judy Blume has filmed a brief interview about the annual event:
Another way to visualize the frequent occurrence of book banning is through a map originally created by members of the National Coalitiion Against Censorship and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. Now maintained by the ALA, the points on the map represent the number of challenges per state. Viewing the map illustrates the frequency of cases throughout the United States.
Limiting or denying access to information bars the public from being exposed to various perspectives. In schools, students need to learn about all sides of an issue before making an informed decision. In order to become critical thinkers, we must ensure that different voices and perspectives are heard. Will banning Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, and Truman Capote somehow maintain our nation’s morality? Or does encouraging the public, both students and adults, to read such important works result in well-rounded, tolerant people? Controversial topics may make us cringe, but they also force us to consider vastly different viewpoints before arriving at a decision. Banning books from public libraries, school libraries, and curricula stifles such freedom of information and expression.
Send a message about your your freedom to read by submitting your two-minute clip to the Banned Books Week YouTube channel. Check the events page on Banned Book Week’s website to learn how you can participate in the week-long activities. For the latest information, or to help promote awareness of this special week, visit their Facebook and Twitter sites; be sure to us social media to spread the word. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—pick up one of the banned books to read on your own. You may discover a new favorite author, or rediscover one you came across years ago. No matter what, just engaging in the act of reading celebrates the right to encounter different perspectives, and assess their soundness for ourselves.