Friday, October 3, 2014

Celebrating – and Protecting - the Freedom to Read

Americans have a reflexive resistance to the idea of censoring literature and the banning of books. This is the land of free speech, after all. Certainly we’ve wrestled with it in the past, but we’re generally accustomed to titles being verboten in other, more repressive societies – the Bible in Saudi Arabia, Animal Farm in North Korea, The Da Vinci Code in Lebanon, to name three – while here we take for granted the availability of even the most historically controversial material, from Mein Kampf to The Story of O. And yet the threat of censorship still looms surprisingly near.

Recently a California charter school decided to pull Corrie ten Boom’s Holocaust memoir The Hiding Place from its library because, according to the report of a parent at the school, library staff were told to “remove Christian books, books by Christian authors, and books from Christian publishers.” The superintendent defended the removal because at the school, “we do not allow sectarian materials on our state-authorized lending shelves.”

Yes, this is one incident in one school, but it is censorship in its purest form, and the motivations for it – anti-Christian bigotry and a misguided determination to purge the state of anything to do with religion – are national in scope. Written material that proselytizes might – might – be one thing, but a sweeping ban on Christian books, authors, and publishers? There go St. Augustine’s Confessions, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and anything from the more than 200-year-old Thomas Nelson firm (publishers of the bestselling Heaven is for Real). How does this benefit the students?

The ten Boom book is the inspiring, harrowing tale of a family heroically saving the lives of about 800 Jews by hiding them from the Gestapo. The family paid the price for it in concentration camps. The book openly states that what motivated the family’s sacrifice was their Christian faith, and for that, the school has deemed the book objectionable.

Last week, appropriately, also happened to be Banned Books Week, an annual event organized by the American Library Association (ALA) to bring together the entire “book community – librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types – in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas.”

The event brings national attention to the ongoing threat of censorship. The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted with bans or challenges in libraries and schools (as the ALA explains, “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials”). The ALA maintains a list of challenged books and authors, where the challenges occur, and what the reasons are for them. Most of the books have remained available “thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.”

The Corrie ten Boom example notwithstanding, the vast majority of challenges were initiated by parents, as you might imagine. According to these helpful Huffington Post infographics, the most commonly cited reason for challenging a book in 2013 was “sexual explicitness” – as in, for example, Fifty Shades of Grey (no surprise there, although I would prefer to see that book challenged on the basis of its offensively poor writing). “Offensive language” (such as in Captain Underpants) was a distant second, and then “unsuited for age group” (Hunger Games).

While the “unsuited for age group” category is perfectly valid – some material is simply too adult for kids, so save it for a more appropriate age of students – controversial books should be read and debated, not forbidden or destroyed. Fahrenheit 451, anyone?

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 9/30/14)