Real Reading Rainbow

Libraries rule. According to recent studies libraries rate higher than religious institutions, according to public surveys, in their usefulness to society. From the lost library of Alexandria of yore to the local Carnegie, libraries have been the repositories of information almost from the beginning of civilization itself. Last week the American Library Association, according to an article forwarded to me by my wife, and the Banned Books Week planning committee, announced a theme for this year’s recognition of the books various groups (many of them religious) tell us we shouldn’t read. Banned Book Week, of course, falls in September. It might seem strange that planning has to go into this, but the banning of books has never ceased and the list grows year by year. I recently mentioned John Green, one of the authors who frequently appears on banned lists for children. In an age when encouragement to read should be running high, we hide behind platitudes to keep our eyes toward a predetermined prize. Among the reasons frequently given for banning a book: its religious outlook. I.e., the “wrong” one.

IMG_0324

I often wonder why we think sheltering children who are old enough to read from the collective knowledge of the human race does them any favors. Our culture so successfully removes us from nature that we don’t experience the “facts of life” that our ancestors no doubt noticed early and often. Violence, sex, drugs, and death, however, haven’t become any less common. They are only hidden until their knowledge hits with often catastrophic force, leading to neuroses about how unsafe our world really is. A function of story, if neurologists are to be believed, is to help us navigate the many trials we’ll encounter by seeing how others have done it before. I don’t doubt that there is age-appropriate material for children, but they understand a lot more than adults like to think they do. In my teaching days I was always amazed at how much undergraduates knew that I was only beginning to discover as a professor. Books seem a good way to introduce knowledge appropriately.

The internet, of course, gives access to unvetted knowledge to anyone with access to a computer or phone. Published books, it used to be, had the added value of passing through editorial hands on their way to public presentation. A funny thing happened on the way to the library. We’ve democratized the writing of books through self-publishing, but we’ve not yet ceased to ban them. Perhaps the real way to protect our children is to listen to them. We seem to think telling is better than hearing, although the flow of knowledge can go both ways. Instead of banning books for our young we might all benefit from opening of our own minds.

Ban Ban Go Away

I always seem to discover banned book week in retrospect. With the insane amount of time put into getting to and from work, and actually working, my daily bus ride is my main vehicle (literally) for reading. For eating forbidden fruit. Historically speaking, the first literature was religious literature. Much of it, if anybody bothered to read it, would end up on banned book lists, I’m sure. The Bible is granted a special amnesty, given its reputation as a divinely penned parchment, but it too has its share of unseemly topics. Sex is there almost from the beginning. Violence too. We could go further, but sex and violence are usually sufficient to land a book on the list. And the choices are always so period specific. Catcher in the Rye seems downright tame in the new millennium (or, indeed, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), and yet we still find new books to condemn. I wonder if such books aren’t forming a new kind of scripture.

There was a time when religion challenged social convention rather than championed it. Religions have been co-opted and domesticated by political interests. Can you imagine the man who overturned money-changers’ tables in the temple on the floor of the stock exchange? We have quantified everything, even—especially—human beings. That which can be quantified can be measured and that which can be measured can be sold. Religions, but only those upholding the status quo, grease those wheels nicely. If we had a chance to know religious founders personally, I suspect we would have found banned books in their libraries. Ideas can be dangerous things.

Despite my generally kind words on this blog, I do read books that I don’t like from time to time. I would never challenge the right of the author to express his or her ideas, nor the publishers (no matter how misguided I think them) for promoting them. I am not the one to quantify. Looking over the American Library Association’s list of banned and frequently challenged books, however, I realize that my fiction-reading hours would be slim indeed. We tend not to ban non-fiction, challenging though it may be. It is the imagination that offends. Such is the power of fiction. Last week was banned book week. Time to look over the list of latest condemned editions to find what to read this week. I am always looking for future scriptures.

The usual suspects...

The usual suspects…