Memo to Would-Be Book Banners: Bring It On

Bluebeard

Bluebeard, his wife and the keys in a 19th century illustration by Gustave Dore.

This week, Sept. 27–Oct. 3, is Banned Books Week, the literary community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read whatever we damn well please. The event draws support from such sponsors as the American Library Association and the Association of American Publishers, and attracts a host of support on Twitter and Facebook under the banner #bannedbooksweek.

Bluebeard, in fable and form, may be the perfect microcosm of the banned books debate. The 17th century French folktale tells the story of a nobleman and serial monogamist eponymous for his indigo facial hair, whose wives mysteriously disappear following every new marriage.

In the tale, he manages to enlist yet another beautiful bride from a nearby village, and she is forced to come live in his castle. Subsequently, Bluebeard announces that he must leave the country on business and imparts the castle’s keys to his young wife. She is free to open any door she wishes, he says, except for one, which leads down to the dark basement.

Of course, the moment he leaves, she immediately unlocks the door and descends into the castle bowels. In the dungeon she finds the lifeless corpses of her husband’s exes dangling from the walls, the floor awash with blood. Bluebeard returns the next morning, discovers what she has done and, in a blind rage, attempts to behead her. At the last second her brothers sweep in to save her and slaughter Bluebeard, and the young woman lives to see another day. But the moral is clear: The more we are told not to look, the more curiosity compels us to do exactly that.

The festivities of Banned Books Week serve to satiate that base desire, inspiring us to indulge in forbidden fruit.

But despite such widespread support, acts of censorship persist. Many books deemed provocative, such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian and the picture book And Tango Makes Three, have been banished from schools and libraries. In 2014, 311 challenges were reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom. Indeed, we should lament this continued effort to limit access to such essential fiction, but like Superman staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, we should also encourage them to bring. It. On.


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Nothing draws people together like a movement behind which to unify. At a time when so many choose to spend their free time watching movies and TV or playing video games instead of reading a book, it’s refreshing to see a cause that breaks through the ambivalence and actually provokes people to get passionate about literature.

It’s similar to how voter turnout is dismal during midterm elections unless there’s a particular hot-button issue on the ballot, at which point advocates on both sides of the measure show up in droves to exercise their democratic right.

What those helicopter parents and other pro-censorship advocates don’t realize is that, ironically, by attempting to blacklist a book they are actually inciting more interest in it:

  • In a 2005 interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, John Grisham comments on attempts to ban his novel A Time to Kill in Mississippi: “It’ll do wonders for your sales. …It’ll give you more clout when you renegotiate your next book deal. Getting banned is wonderful.”
  • Similarly, a 2013 NPR interview with former president of the American Library Association Loriene Roy suggests banning books actually encourages more readers.
  • As a high school student in Portland, Ore., I remember when local parents tried to ban the novel Ricochet River by Robin Cody for containing “sexually explicit language.” The ensuing outrage from parents and students alike united against such censorship led the school board to vote against banning the book, and I recall my fellow students devouring the text far more eagerly than if the reading assignment had been just another task on our summer reading list.
  • Banned Books Week itself was formed in 1982 as a direct “response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries.”

Not all book banning, however, occurs on a large enough scale to boost a writer’s visibility. Authors who lack the reach and platform of big names like Alexie and Grisham can be disproportionately affected by censorship in a county library or school district. But that’s what makes the robust community behind Banned Books Week all the more important—a single voice can become buoyed by a thousand.

The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association’s “Banned & Challenged Books” page offers an online form where users can report attempted challenges, and then brings attention to this censorship in their bi-monthly journal Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom. (The Illinois Library Association takes this information and publishes an annual bibliography of all reported banned and challenged books throughout the year. Download the full bibliography for 2014-2015 here.)

Stephen King is among the most common residents of banned books lists. In a guest column for The Bangor Daily News on March 20, 1992, he encouraged open subversion to literary restrictions in response to having his books The Dead Zone and The Tommyknockers pulled from middle-school library shelves in Florida:

To the kids: There are people in your home town who have taken certain books off the shelves of your school library. Do not argue with them; do not protest; do not organize or attend rallies to have the books put back on their shelves. Don’t waste your time or your energy. Instead, hustle down to your public library, where these frightened people’s reach must fall short in a democracy, or to your local bookstore, and get a copy of what has been banned. Read it carefully and discover what it is your elders don’t want you to know. In many cases you’ll finish the banned book in question wondering what all the fuss was about. In others, however, you will find vital information about the human condition.

The tale of Bluebeard actually makes an appearance in King’s novel The Shining: Danny Torrance remembers the story as one his father drunkenly read to him years before. He relates the young wife’s insatiable curiosity to his own intense desire to look inside Room 217. Just as the forbidden classification of a banned book drives us to peer behind its cover.

Want to read more about Banned Books Week? Brian A. Klems, online editor for WD, leads a discussion with popular authors on why banning books does a disservice to readers everywhere in this great post.


TylerMoss-featured-newTyler Moss is a professional dilettante, the Managing Editor of Writer’s Digest and a freelance writer with bylines for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Outside Magazine and more. He’s a craft beer enthusiast, a pop culture fiend and a human garbage disposal. Find more of his writing at bit.ly/Moss_Writing, and find his bad jokes on Twitter @tjmoss11.

 

 

 

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