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.
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.