Celebrate Banned Books Week

Banned Books

Did you know that this week is the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week? Some people laugh when they hear a reference to banned books. They think, “Well, thank goodness we don’t do that anymore!” Here is the scary thing – communities may not be turning out to burn books in the town square these days, but there is still a surprisingly vocal contingent of people who want to ban books. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, there is currently a proposal in Virginia that would require parents to be notified if required reading in their children’s classes covered “sensitive” material. In Pennsylvania, teachers have been instructed to indicate if books in their classroom libraries contain “violence or sexual content” or “racial, ethnic, or religious material” that might be considered offensive. A local school board in Missouri has just removed Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five from their school libraries in response to a complaint that it contained “vulgar language, violence, and sexual content.” Banning books is still a VERY real thing in our world. The American Library Association provides a list on their website of the books that were most frequently challenged, restricted, removed, or banned in 2013 and 2014.

Last week, Hannah from the blog Things Matter extended an invitation to several book bloggers to choose a book from the ALA list of banned books and share a bit about why it’s an important or worthwhile read. Since I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a few weeks ago, that seemed like the perfect choice for me to write about today.

Since its publication in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale has made regular appearances on national lists of banned books. It is typically challenged for the following reasons:

  • Explicit, lurid or sexual content
  • Profanity
  • Defamation of Christians and women

For those of you who are unfamiliar with The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s speculative fiction. Atwood’s story assumes that the United States government, in the near future, is overthrown by a totalitarian Christian regime. Everyone is forced to convert to the same denomination of Christianity – those who refuse are executed or deported. Men hold all positions of power exclusively, and all property that women owned before the revolution has reverted to their husband or closest male relative. Women are divided into three classes: Wives, Marthas (domestic servants), and Handmaids (mistresses for the purpose of childbearing). The story is narrated by Offred, although this isn’t really her name. She was married with a child before the revolution, but she has been separated from her family, and she is given the choice between exile and life as a Handmaid. “Offred” literally means “Of Fred,” and Fred is the name of the man she has been assigned to as a Handmaid. She has nothing of her own, no idea if her husband and child are dead or alive, and her every movement is closely watched, both by soldiers and spies for the government. The story is about Offred’s existence within the new world order, and the decision she must make to conform or rebel.

I have to tell you, this book made me uncomfortable. It’s not a happy story. It was strange, frequently disturbing, and hard to follow at times. But it was ENTIRELY worthwhile. The people who argue that it’s anti-Christian are those who have only read the back cover. Atwood is not presenting this futuristic world and saying, “See, this is what life would be like if Christians got their way.” The Handmaid’s Tale is not book that sets out to tear down Christianity – it’s a story about the dangers of fundamentalism in any form. It’s about the ways that good people with good intentions can go horribly wrong when they cling too literally to an ideal. It’s about the ways that we talk ourselves into things, and the ways that we rationalize our behavior to ourselves. Instead of forbidding students to read it, shouldn’t we be encouraging students to read it if they are interested and then talk to someone about it?

Even if The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, celebrate Banned Books Week with us! Pick up a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, or any other book on the ALA’s list and appreciate the fact that you can read whatever you want.

I’ll wrap up today by sharing two of my favorite author responses to banned books. First, here is a video of Benedict Cumberbatch at the 2014 Letters Live event. He is reading a letter from Kurt Vonnegut to Charles McCarthy, the chairman of the Drake School Board in North Dakota, who ordered that all copies of Slaughterhouse Five be burned in the school’s furnace because it contained “obscene language.” Vonnegut responds to accusations that his work is evil by stating that, if his accusers bothered to read his books, they would see that they actually “beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are.” In his letter, Vonnegut is eloquent, severe, and absolutely right.

Second, here is a letter that Pat Conroy wrote in 2007 to the editor of the Charleston Gazette when he learned that a group of parents wanted to prevent a high school teacher in West Virginia from using Prince of Tides and Beach Music in her classroom. Conroy says that of all his books, these two are the ones that he would “place before the altar of God and say, ‘Lord, this is how I found the world you made.’” He makes a powerful argument for supporting English teachers and trusting that they will do no harm when they choose novels for their students to read.

Do you have a favorite banned book?