Friday, October 2, 2009

Banned Books Week

Hello blogosphere!

I, Intern Miriam, have finally succumbed to the siren call of the internet generation and entered the blogging fray. A little bit about me: a recent graduate with an English Literature/Psychology double major, I have been with the agency for over a year, and hope one day to join the editorial workforce in NYC/London/Sydney/etc. Things I like: books, bananagrams, cooking, and organized listmaking. On that note, I was finally motivated to blog about Banned Books Week (Sept. 28th- Oct. 3rd) because the idea of forcing people not to read is basically against everything I believe in, and hopefully adding my voice into the discussion will make a difference, even if you just can go to your library and finally read a book you have thought about reading (try the index on this website).

I thought about compiling a list of my particular favorites (Lolita, 100 Years of Solitude, any Harry Potter book, His Dark Materials, The Great Gatsby, etc.) from the official banned books list, but quickly realized that my list would be too long. Instead, I decided to point out a few issues I have with the idea of banning books.

For one thing, don't we have enough trouble getting kids these days to read (not to age myself up or anything)?! I constantly and loudly bemoan the dropping numbers of kids who love reading and devour books like some of us did at a young age, but I also believe that it is easy for kids to follow media trends by choosing video games and TV, as often it might be easier for them to find the hottest new PSP game than search for a book they might enjoy. If we, the "wiser" elders, who are supposed to show them the way of the world, try to limit their choices further, it harms their ability for mental growth and imaginative play. Banning books in the school system means that these children are less likely to pick up something that might be able to compete with the onslaught of provacative media. As an example, the Gossip Girl books are frequently challanged as not appropriate for the age level, but there is a TV show based on them that is wildly more "graphic" or "inappropriate" that is quite easily asscessable and seen by a huge youth demographic as the coolest show around. That seems like an insurmountable double standard, as the ruling against books in a learning environment is merely depriving them of the joy found in books, to be replaced after school with vapid, over-sexed TV shows.

Honestly, I dislike the ubiquity of the Gossip Girls series and the myriad of spin-offs or copy-cat books (and I am not counting the Luxe books, as I am newly obsessed); I don't think they are very well-written, and it bothers me on a fundamental level that now materialistic/brand descriptive phrases are somehow okay (i.e. Ralph Lauren blue), but I do think that they are available as ways to get kids to see reading as cool, or at least acceptable in their peer groups. I would rather see freedom of choice (even if the books aren't what I hold as up to literary standards) and people enjoying books than being stifled and turned away from libraries and schools.

The standards for banning books are the most irritating part of this whole mess; rather than using the quality of writing as a standard, the censors use Puritanical concerns about vulgarity or racial/gender/orientation insensitive claims against morals. To Kill a Mockingbird was brought to court over the use of the n-word, which, when I read it, did shock me. However, we hear that same word in rap songs all the time (I happen to have competing obsessions for Nabokov and Lil Wayne, for which my friends constantly mock me) and they seem somehow whitewashed or less offensive than reading it. I think we should be seeing the horrible effect of reading that word at a young age, in books like Beloved or To Kill a Mockingbird, so people won't think it is "okay" to use just because their favorite recording artists use it. In those books, we get the sense that it is derogatory and offensive and also about power dynamics, and we learn the moral value of respecting people who are different from us.

In fact, many books taken to court for "vulgarity" (Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer) are just as deliciously dirty or crude as some of Shakespeare's work, yet you never see people trying to ban him, even realizing that banning Shakespeare is taking things too far. There is an absurd website (I deliberated whether or not to link to it here, but decided to do so in the name of freedom of speech, but when I unfortunately tried I couldn't find the website again) that claimed they didn't object to Shakespeare, despite objecting to pretty much every other book, but did they ever read Titus Andronicus or Measure for Measure?! The clever, witty banter of Shakespeare and his infinitely glourious work is leagues ahead (in quality) of books like Twilight, but people have tried to object to Hamlet and King Lear before objecting to that poorly written, slightly abusive series (I may have to save that rant for another post). I find that working in the romance/erotica genre has taught me to see beyond what some call "smut" and into the success of the realistic fantasy scenes. The best parts of the romance novels, much like real life, are often the culmination of a "vulgar" desire, and the consummation of love. But aren't these scenes even more powerful when they are well-written, about characters who a reader feels strongly about? I liked Henry and June maybe in part because of the titillating sexual freedom but more because of the raw emotion and vulnerability that bled from every page.

As this post has started to reach epic proportions, I feel the need to wrap it up (and refrain from a Joycean dirty pun) and promise that not all of my posts will be so long! In closing, I must note that while I often object to various books on the basis of the quality of writing or plot, I feel very strongly that we must have the freedom to choose, and the ability to create a dialogue about our books. We cannot allow books to be banned and set up for persecution, especially because that often leaves readers at a disadvantage (should we not revel in the beauty of Orhan Pamuk's prose because he is seen as a political dissident? Or marvel at the intricacies of Rushdie's fantastical language because it is said to be taunting a particular religion?). And rememeber, as Heinrich Heine once said, "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings." The banning of books, then, can only mimic the ignorant minds of those who will end in the banning of human beings that they consider to be corrupt or unsuitable.


P.S. Some other links to check out, enjoy!

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