Thursday, September 27, 2012

First they banned the books

Banned Books displays often elicit impassioned responses. “Why are you banning books?” “Who would want to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?” “Don’t people know this is how Hitler started?”

All of these are valid questions, and I’d like to take a few moments to address each one.
  1. Our library is not banning books; we have a display about books that have been banned. Our annual recognition of Banned Books Week highlights our belief that freedom in reading is closely tied to freedom of thought and speech.
  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been challenged and banned since it was written. It was banned in Concord, Massachusetts in 1895 as “trash and suitable only for the slums,” excluded from the children’s room of the Brooklyn Public Library in 1905 on the grounds that “Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration,” and for the past sixty years it has been challenged for its “liberal use of racial slurs.”
  3. Throughout history, authoritarian leaders have tried to control how people think, and one of the methods is to prohibit books that represent alternate viewpoints. Akhenaton, a pharaoh who tried to introduce monotheism to ancient Egypt, ordered books on polytheism burned. William Tyndale, the first person to translate the Bible into English from its original Hebrew and Greek, was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1536, along with copies of his Bible. Most infamously in modern history, on the pretext of affirming traditional German values, the Nazi German Student Association burned upwards of 25,000 “un-German” books.

Not every banned book necessarily leads to a totalitarian society, but the loss of one right can make the next loss easier to accept, until at some point, the freedom once taken for granted cannot be regained. That is the message of precautionary stories like George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the reason we highlight Banned Books Week every year.

The American Library Association has a list of the most frequently challenged or banned books in the 21st Century.  Are any of your favorite books on the list?

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