As Banned Books Week draws to a close tomorrow, I wanted to throw in three cents, in the hopes of inciting discussion that endures through to Banned Books Week 2012.
1. Controversy can be a valuable marketing tool
Through the ages, many books have gotten more attention—and even sales—because they’ve attracted controversy. Does this mean you should try to attract book burners with your tale? No. But if your story is perceived as controversial, be prepared to defend it.
2. Book advocates are the keepers of our cultural landscape
Without librarians, teachers, booksellers and readers lending their voices to the need to treasure rather than quash voices with which we might not always agree, we would all be worse off.
3. Book Banning is sometimes more complex than it appears
I got into something of an online fray last year when Amazon decided it was a-ok to sell The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover's Code of Conduct. Turned out I was not alone and Amazon pulled the book from its virtual shelves, but not before I was accused of being an advocate for book banning and/or censorship. But here’s the rub: I believe it is Amazon’s right to publish and sell whatever they choose, and it is also my right to choose not to shop there for any reason at all, including their providing a platform for this book.
I don’t think the book should be banned. I just will not shop at any store that sells it. And if Amazon was going to choose to publish and sell it, I was going to shop elsewhere. For the record, in the almost year since this happened, I have adjusted my buying habits, shopping only with Amazon on those rare occasions when I have no other viable option.
“Do you think Lolita should be banned?” I was asked. The answer is no. Why not? Several reasons, really, but the most important is that Lolita is a work of fiction, and does not purport to be anything else. It’s not a guide or a manual. “What about Huckleberry Finn? Are you ok with promoting racism?” Again, no. In my opinion (the one to which, at least as of this writing, I’m still entitled), Huckleberry Finn is a fictional story told in the regional vernacular of the time in which it is set. It is not The Racist’s Guide to Stringing Up Anyone We Dislike.
To me, there is a difference between fiction and nonfiction, between a story and a guide. Between propaganda and information. I’m not saying the author of the Pedophile's Guide should have been legally prevented from publishing his work, but I do wish he had chosen not to. Free will and all that.
“Ok, then,” one person asked, “what about Mein Kampf?” It’s not fiction. It is, by all accounts (I’ve never read it), horribly written. It is used as propaganda by hate- and violence-mongering groups the world over. I understand the argument that it is disrespectful to not ban it. But the fact is that this book’s author had an enormous impact on the world we inhabit. Understanding him gives us a chance to recognize that which is vile within human nature in the hopes that we will choose to turn toward light rather than darkness. So I’m ok with not banning it. I can tell you, though, that the indie bookshops I frequent don’t stock it, and I’m good with that too.
Someone else asked about the Koran. That was easy. The Koran is a holy text, one that is followed by something on the order of one fifth of the planet’s population. It should no more be banned than any other holy text.
Which leads us where, exactly?
When it comes to banning or censoring books, I believe it’s important that we understand why it happens. If we simply put every case of a book being removed from a library down to stupidity, ignorance, or something in the water in a particular locale, this will forever be a part of our society. If instead we can understand the point of view—whether based in fear, unawareness, or a foreign belief structure—that leads to banning, censoring or burning books, we have some hope of one day not having to celebrate Banned Books Week at all.