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.
Originally written September 25, 1997
1 *Thank you, Ms. McDowell!