September 25, 2008

Banned Books Week - Cause for Celebration?

Why do we celebrate Banned Books Week? Well, it's a worthy celebration, but a more apt title would be "Freedom to Read Week" or "Freedom of Ideas Week." I think this topic is more complex than most readers acknowledge. It's no fun to celebrate a negative thing, but if that injustice is still pervasive in many parts of the world, then it's important for those of us who have the right to read as we choose to do so and to celebrate this right.

I learned this lesson through the lens of another issue: gay rights. I remember having a college professor look me in the eye and tell me he was not against gay rights but then he said unequivocally, "What I am not in favor of is gay pride!" He was a professor I respected and I think this really mixed me up for a while. I think what he meant was that this is a difference we're entitled to, so why focus attention on it as if it's a virtue?....sounds a bit like Banned Books Week.

In the ten years since I graduated from college I have thought of that conversation many times and have come into my own in terms of challenging that professor should our paths meet again: so long as gay rights are not universal, I applaud any and all celebration of the rights that are secure for the gay community (which, by the way, are not if we didn't know). Gays in Israel and Palestine need to see Americans celebrating this difference so they can at least have a distant glimmer of hope for their own situation. (Sorry for this diversion into non-library matters. I just watched Freedom on the Rocks.)

But when I promoted this post last week I called it "I can think of worse things than banning books..." and I can. What is the real problem with banning books (there is one, this is not a rhetorical question)? The problem is that the people for whose supposed benefit the books are burned do not see the power play in progress: if a book is banned or burned, it's probably a book I want to have. So the real injustice is either people not knowing that or not having any recourse to obtain the information being banned.

In this month's Harper's there is a great article that finally confirmed for me that I am not the only one thinking along these lines, although I admit it is totally unconventional. [I also highly recommend (for what that's worth) the article entitled The Western Cannon by Jason Armagost.] John Leonard, in his review of A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, brilliantly points out that, "The fact that 15 million books were destroyed in Poland from 1939 through 1941 is not the most important thing to know about the Holocaust."

Celebrating the freedom to read is fantastic, and working for greater freedoms everywhere is even more fantastic. From where I sit that means increasing access to transportation for the sick, elderly, working poor, veterans and people with disabilities. So I think there are greater lessons to be learned from Banned Books Week than those contained between the covers of a codex. What do you think?

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