Friday, October 5, 2012

Read a Banned Book

Two years ago when the controversial Florida pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn Korans, I had a passionate argument with a friend who strongly supported the gesture as a protest against the ideology contained within its covers. While I supported Jones’s right to burn the book as a protected act of free speech, I was (and remain) adamantly opposed to book burning as a way to resolve the clash of ideas. Whether it’s the Koran or Mein Kampf or, ironically, Fahrenheit 451, censorship never works and smacks of intellectual Nazism. Controversial books shouldn’t be burned or banned–they should be read and debated.

This is the thirtieth anniversary of Banned Books Week, an annual event that celebrates our freedom to read and that tries to draw national attention to censorship. The site notes that schools, bookstores and libraries have received “challenges” on more than 11,300 books since the event was initiated, 326 last year alone. Among the ten most challenged titles of 2011 were popular works like The Hunger Games trilogy and the Gossip Girl series; surprisingly, old classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Brave New World are still on the list.

Imagine the loss to our cultural heritage if censors had succeeded in eliminating from our shelves books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, Catcher in the Rye, Native Son, The Grapes of Wrath, Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This is not to say that every “challenged” book is necessarily a classic or that the ideas contained within are not reprehensible; but better to let those earn our condemnation based on their own (lack of) merits than to simply be denied to anyone, which only fuels interest.

On a related note, in the same spirit of celebrating books and reading, September 8 was International Literacy Day. To mark the occasion, Belgian graphic design studio beshart brought together one hundred artists from twenty-eight countries to redesign the covers for “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time” – at least, the greatest according to The Observer in 2003 – for an illiteracy awareness project.*

The one hundred covers, officially unveiled in Antwerp, make for a striking collection of contemporary design and illustration; it is also, as the site says, “a wonderful collection of posters that has you contemplating on those great reading moments we as literate people often take for granted.”

There is a range of creative quality among the artwork, from beautiful and poignant–such as the silhouettes of mother and child forming the “A” for “adultery” on the cover of The Scarlet Letter–to stark and unsettling, such as the odd and disturbing black-and-white cover for Jane Eyre; from the playful –as with Tom Jones–to the chaotic–Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Speaking of the once-banned novel Fahrenheit 451, Lauren Weiner points to an overlooked message in the book which reminds us that government censorship is not the only threat to books:*
It was not oppressive government policies, but decisions of the people, under the influence of technologies that sped up human experience too much, that undermined humanistic values and intellectual curiosity in the first place. Not state censorship, but a more general failure to value the mind, the imagination, nature, and a civilization’s hard-won insights, is the main target of criticism in that novel.
* Hat tip to Maria Popova for both of these. She has a great collection of meditations on censorship at her always-intriguing Brain Pickings site.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/3/12)