I can’t believe I almost missed Banned Books Week (Sep­tem­ber 20 through 27 in 1997). It’s espe­cially odd since I’ve been in branches of the Cobb, Gwin­nett and Dekalb county libraries this week doing some research, and not one has so much as a notice about the event, although one of its spon­sors is the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion (the ACLU is another).

I’ve never really under­stood the logic behind ban­ning books. The for­bid­den will always be more inter­est­ing, espe­cially to young peo­ple, than what is per­mit­ted or even man­dated that they read. Do you have any idea how many kids have read For­ever by Judy Blume, because it is fre­quently banned, when they can hardly be per­suaded to read the Sun­day fun­nies most of the time? That book made the rounds back when I was in mid­dle school, with the “good parts” being read out loud in cir­cles of gig­gling girls at break time (with some­one assigned to look out for teach­ers, of course). Most of those girls never read any­thing that wasn’t absolutely required, beyond the occa­sional perusal of Tiger Beat mag­a­zine or some­thing similar.

The same holds true for other media, as well. I never saw the movie The Last Temp­ta­tion of Christ, but I know a lot of peo­ple who saw it, sim­ply because of the uproar try­ing to keep it out of the­aters. That non­sense prob­a­bly quadru­pled its draw to theaters.

Well, I read For­ever when I was 11 years old or so, and it didn’t cause me to go out and lose my vir­gin­ity or even to use bad lan­guage. I’m not ter­ri­bly wor­ried about its effect, or the effect of any other well-​​written novel, on kids. Mark Twain’s writ­ing didn’t encour­age racism or the ide­al­iza­tion of other races in me or any­one else I know. The hard-​​core porn a cousin and I found under her brother’s bed while clean­ing house didn’t have any ill or last­ing effects on us (I think I was about 12, 13 at the most, then). The Play­boy and Pent­house mag­a­zines casu­ally strewn across the cof­fee table at one of the houses where I baby sat didn’t have any, either. I’d read every­thing from Shake­speare to Judith Krantz to the Song of Solomon and a few pop­u­lar sex man­u­als and Emmanuelle before I was out of high school, and I’m still nei­ther promis­cu­ous, work­ing in a sex indus­try, or in any way pre­oc­cu­pied with sex. Read­ing V.C. Andrews didn’t turn me into an inces­tu­ous nut­case or cause me to go live in an attic. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was 10 years old, and I’ve never in my life thrown the infa­mous epi­thet that got it banned at any­one. Read­ing Neil Schul­man and L. Neil Smith hasn’t caused me to go over­turn any gov­ern­ments, or even enter the under­ground econ­omy. Lord of the Flies sick­ened me, rather than pro­vok­ing prim­i­tive tribal behav­ior. As you can see, I find cen­sor­ship a truly silly endeavor. I find the image of a per­son dying on a cross far more sick­en­ing and offen­sive than any of the above, but I do not try to have it banned.

I find it amus­ing that one of the best Eng­lish teach­ers*1 I ever had (and, as far as most stu­dents assumed, the most prud­ish) gave our class some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on writ­ing. She said that to become a good writer, to develop your own unique voice, you must devour as much of oth­ers writ­ing as you can, good and bad and ugly. She said you must read every­thing from the Bible (start with the King James Ver­sion and read as many other trans­la­tions as you can find — indis­pens­able for any stu­dent of west­ern cul­ture) to True Con­fes­sions and the National Enquirer and Von­negut and Chaucer and Asi­mov and daily news­pa­pers and cereal boxes and any­thing else that is words. You’ll start to notice what does and doesn’t work, what grabs you and what seems a chore, how authors man­age to pull dif­fer­ent emo­tions from you. I believe she was absolutely right, although I’d prob­a­bly add lis­ten­ing to as great a vari­ety of music as you can and lis­ten­ing to as many peo­ple speak­ing with dif­fer­ent lan­guages and dialects and rhythms as you can (espe­cially for writ­ing dia­logue). Ban­ning or cen­sor­ing books takes away that oppor­tu­nity and impov­er­ishes our entire soci­ety in the long run. You can­not have a free soci­ety while try­ing to erad­i­cate ideas you don’t like. Stop trying.

A cou­ple of good sites about cen­sor­ship and book ban­ning are hosted by
Books A to Z and the ACLU.

Orig­i­nally writ­ten Sep­tem­ber 25, 1997

1 *Thank you, Ms. McDowell!