30 Years of Defending Intellectual Freedom

The 30th Banned Books Week begins on Sunday, Sept. 30, shining a bright light on the liberties represented in the U.S. First Amendment.

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment,” wrote Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, “it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

For the past three decades, the American Library Association, along with booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers of all stripes, have used the last week of September to highlight the value of free and open access to information.

This year’s commemoration is Sept. 30 – Oct. 6 and features:

There’s a helpful page on the ALA website explaining the difference between banned and challenged books and why certain books are challenged.

Many of the books frequently challenged are ones you’d expect to encounter in high school: The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Call of the Wild (see a longer list of challenged classics). This attempt at censorship in schools, I think, is a distinct danger because if you encounter ideas that challenge or confuse you, it seems to me there’s no better place to do so than in a classroom, where you have the ability to discuss these concepts, ask questions, listen to other points of view, and share or reassess your own.

Have you ever read a banned or challenged book? How will you commemorate Banned Books Week?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“When friends asked what they could do to help he often pleaded, ‘Defend the text.’ The attack was very specific, yet the defense was often a general one, resting on the mighty principle of freedom of speech. He hoped for, he often felt he needed, a more particular defense, like the quality defense made in the cases of other assaulted books, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Ulysses, Lolita; because this was a violent assault not on the novel in general or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words, and on the intentions and integrity and ability of the writer who had put those words together…and so, for many years, The Satanic Verses was denied the ordinary life of a novel. It became something smaller and uglier: an insult.”
~ Salman Rushdie, from his memoir Joseph Anton

How Will You Spend Banned Books Week?

Did you know that in addition to the massively popular young adult series Twilight and The Hunger Games, the books in 2010 most likely to be challenged – in the hopes of banning them from schools, libraries and stores – include Nickel and Dimed and Brave New World?

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is an expose by Barbara Ehrenreich of the 1996 welfare reform act (frequently referred to as “welfare to work”) and its affect on the working poor, struggling to get by in low-wage jobs. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (along with George Orwell’s 1984) is frequently listed as one of the best English-language books of the 20th century and is often part of middle- and high-school English curricula.

As I write this entry, from a public library workstation, an entire shelf above my right shoulder is taken over with entries from the Twilight series, multiple copies of each selection, in hardcover and soft, all well-perused, but clearly treasured enough to retain the images of Edward and Bella on their spines. Equally loved copies of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy wait on a shelf further down the aisle.

It is sometimes hard to imagine that book challenges still occur 11 years into the new millennium. They seem like anachronisms, part of the Fahrenheit 451 or Pentagon Papers era. When I stumbled on this website, I learned that Banned Books Week has been around since 1982, founded to confound a growing effort to censor books in schools and libraries, often taking place at the community level, where book-challenges garner limited national news coverage.

This Saturday ushers in 2011’s Banned Books Week, September 24 – October 1, during which libraries, bookstores and various Internet locations are sponsoring events, such as “read-outs” of volumes that have fallen prey to challenges and censors.

If banning books bothers you, you may be interested in this state-by-state listing of events.

For further details and event updates, you can follow @BannedBooksWeek on Twitter or connect with the group on Facebook.

The Kids’ Right to Read Project section of the National Coalition Against Censorship website offers valuable resources for parents and teachers who want to challenge book-challenges.

There’s even a Banned Books Week YouTube channel where you can watch interviews and readings by various authors or contribute your very own reading of a favorite book that has fanned the censors’ ire.

To mark Banned Books Week, I plan to re-read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a frequent lodger on banned books lists. Yes, it contains language that should never be used, in written or verbal form; yes, there is a new expurgated version. No, I will not be reading the censored publication despite the discomfort I have reading certain words.

Huckleberry Finn was written as it was to illustrate the mindset of the time – and to demonstrate that even a mind so set could change, and that that change has plenty to do with heart and the compassion human beings should feel for one another, no matter our rank in society. This is a book I first fell in love with at the age of 12, long before any English teacher had the chance to place the work in historical context. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of language (especially the Southern dialect) and Huck’s experiences on the river journey are what convince the reader of Huck’s transformation. It’s why we keep tagging along on the journey with him: to remind ourselves of the value of re-thinking our opinions and the need to be humane.

Which books will you choose to revisit or upload to the virtual read-out?