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Opinion: Book nazis—Keep your mitts off my reading lists!

October 21st, 2012 Posted in Opinion

By Ted Pease

It’s incredible to me that busy-bodies spent so much of their time and energy last year trying to banish books from library shelves. “Incredible” in its literal sense: I can’t believe that anyone in 2012 a) is still trying to “protect” others from salacious stuff like Huckleberry Finn and The Diary of Anne Frank, or b) that they think anyone can hide anything from anyone in the Internet era.

The Good Old Days—New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, 1873.

This came to my attention during the recent Banned Books Week, when booklovers of all kinds celebrated the freedom to read. I had to wonder: Do we really still have to debate this? Seriously? Book-banning? Didn’t that go out with the rack?

The mere concept of banning books brings to mind ancient barbarisms—like burning witches or the Inquisition, shooting the messenger or cutting out people’s tongues for blasphemy.

Newsman Bill Moyers, long a clear-headed voice of reason, is chairman of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. “It pains me today that even in this modern age some folks in communities across America are saying, ‘No, that book isn’t for you,’” Moyers says. “And for reasons that have nothing to do with community, the school or the reader—and everything to do with prejudice.” 

Seemingly, and to my naïve surprise, book-banning—as boneheaded, wrong-headed and downright un-American as it is—has not gone out of style in 2012.

If you think about it, there are probably more, not fewer, people out there today minding other people’s business, trying to tell us the right way to think—the screaming political partisans of both the Right and the Left, religious absolutists who encourage rioting and killing over imagined offenses to their beliefs. The crazy self-styled Christian holy men who think they know the Truth with a capital T, and so may burn other religions’ holy books. The moralists who know what’s best for other people’s sex lives and lifestyles. Heck, some people beat up other people over football games.

And what kinds of books are people trying to protect us from? Among the 326 books challenged in 2011-12:

• Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (“soft pornography”), which Mr. Owen had us read in 9th grade.
• Harry Potter (seriously?).
• J.D. Salinger, god bless him, for his 1951 opus on teenaged angst, The Catcher in the Rye.
• Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World (too much sex, and because it “lacks literary value”).
• The Color Purple.
• A Wrinkle in Time.
• To Kill A Mockingbird.
• Water for Elephants.
• Snow Falling on Cedars.

And the unholy Quran (of course), which that whacko Florida “minister” burned, setting off riots in the Middle East that killed at least 12 people.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) has been banned since it was published.

All this would be just silly if it weren’t so dangerous. As a journalist, I come at this conversation from the broader perspective of individual liberties, freedom of expression and the absolute necessity of free exchange of ideas and information in a free society.

Like most progressive-academic-left-wing-feminist-tree-hugging-secular-humanists, I am a waffler who sees many nuances of an issue—which means I will rarely storm the barricades. This is one reason the people I admire most don’t succeed in politics: “On the other hand. . . ” makes for an uninspiring bumpersticker.

But there is one area in which I am not a waffler: I am a First Amendment absolutist, and proud of it. There’s a time and a place for everything, of course, but without free expression, humankind cannot thrive and society cannot function.

Book-banning is the antithesis of American liberty. “Censorship,” said Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”

I have plenty of confidence in people to decide these things for themselves. The alternative is to appoint some Official Busybody to decide for us what kind of stuff our mushy little brains can handle. Who would that be? Should I decide for you what you can read? I sure as hell don’t want you deciding for me!

So keep your sanctimonious mitts off our bookshelves, you holier-than-thou Puritan do-gooders. I won’t tell you what to read and how to think—for which you should be grateful—so don’t tell me or my kids what we can’t read.

—This column is adapted from a lecture at Logan Library’s observance of Banned Books Week, Oct. 3, 2012. Pease is head of the Department of Journalism & Communication at Utah State University. Other versions of this column appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Eureka (CA) Times Standard.


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