It was nearly 90 years ago that thousands of Germans gathered around bonfires to destroy books by leading writers, artists and other intellectuals, many of them Jewish. It was only the beginning of a fascist movement to eradicate Jews and others who didn’t fit the Aryan ideal. This was the cultural genocide that preceded the human slaughter of the Holocaust.
Today, we may not (yet) have book burning, but increasingly we are in a wave of book banning. And so, as a reminder of the intellectual freedom so essential to a vibrant democracy, the American Library Association marked this week as Banned Books Week and published its annual list of books most requested for elimination. This year, a record 1651 books have been banned in one or another school or library, to the detriment of those communities and our collective awareness.
Over recent years, banned book titles have included Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. At one time or other, I was assigned all these books in school and benefited from the exposure. Other books banned have included Harry Potter and The Color Purple. Just think how many young people became readers because they so loved Harry Potter! Imagine the mindset of those who want to ban Maus, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust.
Not surprisingly, the targets of the fearful and narrow-minded have included books with themes of race, sexuality, gender, anything that is “woke,” along with examples of the traditional targets of offensive language and violence. (I wonder how many of the would-be banners have tried to prohibit the violence in video games.)
Lately, under the guise of banning the teaching of that ill-defined “critical race theory,” some parents are asking schools and libraries to ban books about slavery and the Civil War. If teachers can’t teach that, you’re denying the truth of and eliminating from the history of our country the lived experience of African Americans. Targeted for extinction today are books by Toni Morrison and Ibram Kendi. Also The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (I’m not particularly fond of its dystopian view, but it’s banned for profanity) and one of my favorites, The Kite Runner, banned for “promoting Islam.”
I grew up in Boston, which, under the influence of our Puritan forebears and of the Catholic Church, had a strong tradition of banning books, especially for what the hometown censors viewed as “obscenity.” Over time, the ban included masterpieces by Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman. To be “banned in Boston” was a guarantee that readers would do their damnedest to secure and share the outlawed material. I remember as a 12-year-old, stretched out on the back lawn of my friend Jane’s house on a warm summer day, reading a purloined copy of Gone With the Wind. She got it from her older sister Lorraine, already in high school, who got it from God knows where. We were not to be denied. (We did the same thing with D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover.)
Today book bans are more numerous, the movement more dangerous. We live in a world of alternative facts, election deniers, stereotypes, haters, racists, anti-Semites and people who seem proud of their anti-intellectualism. Free expression is a cornerstone of our democracy. It’s not enough to shrug our shoulders and tsk-tsk those who would excise the written word and deny the real-life experience of others.
We need to engage in the debate. We could work against candidates who are comfortable with banning books. If we live in a community where books are under assault, we might even organize to provide students with e-Readers like Kindle. Above all, we must remain ever mindful of one group’s slogan: Students Need Challenging not Book Challenges. Ideas that challenge, that bring discomfort, are part of intellectual growth. Be proud to say, “I read banned books.”