Books Aren’t the Problem

I wrote a post last night – Censorship Isn’t the Solution – about something that makes me angry, and about which I feel very strongly.  Book banning, censorship in education and in public libraries, has always frustrated me.  I see no sense in removing books from shelves when they make people uncomfortable, because that is why books exist.  Learning is a beautiful challenge, and to step outside of your comfort zone is tough, but brave, and yes, educational.  Books should make you feel, even when the feelings aren’t good ones.  That’s what learning is.

While I was working last night, I searched for quotes from famous writers to inspire me, and came across this one:

“Real readers finish books, and then judge them; most people who propose banning a book haven’t finished it. In fact, no one who actually banned Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ even read it.”

This is an excerpt from a letter written by John Irving to a high school in New Hampshire that banned his book, The Hotel New Hampshire, and deemed it “inappropriate.”  I can’t say whether John Irving is correct that many people who demand the removal of books from shelves in schools and public libraries haven’t actually read them from cover to cover, but I suspect that he is.  I have a recent personal experience, actually, that leads me to believe him.  

My grandfather spent a lot of time at UVA’s hospital in Charlottesville recovering from a major surgery that eventually ended his life.  While he was there, his children, my mother and aunts and uncles, took turns spending nights with him so that he wouldn’t suffer alone.  My mom often spent time reading during her assigned nights, and one of the books she read, at my suggestion, was Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box.  She left it for my uncle when he took over the watch from her, and it stayed in the hospital room after my grandfather left.  We all pretty much forgot it was there, in the rush to get him home.

Recently, and it’s been over a year at this point since my grandfather passed away, Heart-Shaped Box made its way home to my grandmother, mailed back with a letter from its last reader tucked into the pages.

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The letter is signed with only a name, so I can’t get in touch with its writer, but it says, in part:

“I had a harder time reading your book.  The first chapter alone was very hard to get a grip on.  I find the aurthor [sic] soul to be dry like sand.  He could describe but he could not connect to the reader with a spiritual connection.”

Elsewhere in the note:

“I closed the book finding nothing I could capture of interest.  I truly tried to read this book, but I think I was left out.”

And then, the conclusion:

“So, I have mailed you back your book.  I only got to Chapter 6 after 14 attempts.  And thankful that Chapter 3 was short.”

Before I go on, let me make one thing perfectly clear:  The person who wrote this letter had every right to put the book down before finishing it, and to voice her opinion about what she’d read.

I am not attacking her, her letter, or what she wrote to my grandmother.  It was a kind gesture to send the book back, and it was thoughtful to write a note about it to share her perspective. I do think her letter is illuminating, though.  She found a lack of spirituality in the book that she didn’t enjoy.  She said that Joe Hill’s thoughts were bizarre, and that his soul “is truly numb like a zombie.”  And so, after several attempts and lots of thought, she didn’t finish the book and sent it back.

I imagine that many of those who raise the call to ban a book do so after coming across an uncomfortable passage or two, and deciding based on only that information, only on that opinion, in context of the book or not, that the book is not appropriate for any audience.  This kind of thinking is flawed.  There is no reason to remove access to a book for everyone when one person has vocalized discomfort.  The book is not the problem.  The reader is the problem.  The reader’s failure to look at the big picture is the problem.  The reader’s failure to analyze the text and determine its message is the problem.  Another quote I came across last night, from a letter written by Kurt Vonnegut to a school board leader in North Dakota:

“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.”

It is the responsibility of a free society to share ideas.  When we silence the voices that confront our darkest deeds and bring them into the light, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and build a better future for our children.  We deprive our children of the opportunity to become better people themselves.  Those who call for the removal of literature from the shelves of schools and public libraries do a disservice to their communities.  To ban books is to ban free thinking, and that is a dangerous path to walk because it is the path of ignorance, and ignorance has done a lot more harm in this world than any book.

Censorship Isn’t the Solution

It came to my attention tonight that To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been temporarily removed from Accomack County school bookshelves after a parent complained about the use of racial slurs in both.  Here’s one of the articles I read, if you’re particular like me and you’d like to verify the facts for yourself: Virginian-Pilot Article.

Yes, folks, censorship right here in my beloved Old Dominion.  We’re starting the holiday season off right with some good old-fashioned book banning.

I don’t mean to be cruel or dismissive.  I understand a parent’s concern for the welfare and safety of a child – I’m not heartless.  Both of these books address painful topics, even for adults, and it’s important to be sensitive to how children might feel when they read such ugly, hateful words.  But read them they must, because erasing the history of racism in the United States doesn’t change the fact that it happened.  Glossing over our nation’s past in the classroom, or worse removing it from the shelves altogether, doesn’t help our children.

Books aren’t, and were never meant to be, safe.  Literature helps us confront the darkest parts of ourselves.  Stories should challenge us, inspire us, and arm us with knowledge and perspective as we live every day in this world.  To be uncomfortable, to be sad, to be happy, to be angry, to be frustrated while reading is to learn, and learning is a beautiful, difficult, maddening, absolutely and vitally important thing.

Nasty words in books don’t hurt us.  The world hurts us, and books help us process that pain.  We shouldn’t, must not, deny children that opportunity.