Saturday, October 03, 2009

Banned Books Week wrap-up

img src="" align="right" hspace="5">Today is the final day of "Banned Books Week" here in the U.S.

The name of the event is, as many of you are already aware, misleading. The books that are being talked about are not books that have been outlawed throughout the land. And trust me folks, there are books that have been banned from entire countries.

For example, let's talk about the publishing history of one of D.H. Lawrence's most famous novels, Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Lawrence wrote the novel in the late 1920s, but it was so racy that it wasn't published in Great Britain. Until 1960. And then, Penguin (the publishing house) was put on trial for distributing obscenity. After being found not guilty, Penguin issued a second edition of the book the following year, which it dedicated to the jurors in the obscenity trial. The prosecutor probably didn't help his case all that much when he the jurors whether it was the sort of book they'd want "your wife or servants to read."

Great Britain wasn't the only country to completely ban the book: Australia did, too. And not only did they ban Lady Chatterley's Lover, but they also banned a book about the British obscenity trial about the book.

The United States banned it from 1930 until the early 1960s, when a court case managed to overturn the ban. (Copies that had been smuggled into the country were distributed for a time by the now-defunct Gotham Book Mart, in violation of the prohibition.)

If you haven't read the book, allow me to tell you why all those governments got their knickers in a twist? The book is, at least in part, about a working class guy banging an aristocratic lady, and it uses a significant number of words like "fuck" and "cunt". The book is about more than that, of course, and examines class relations along with quite a lot of other issues, but the descriptions of sex and the terms used were enough to make the book more regulated than quite a number of deadly weapons for a while.

And it all comes down to this: There are, and always will be, people who believe that ideas are dangerous things. There are Sunday School teachers who don't want children to ask them "why" or "how come" sorts of questions, parents who want to rely on "because I said so", politicians who'd really rather you not look into their rationales, etc.

Books are notorious for looking at ideas. And a lot of times, what novels - and particularly those that are on the list of challenged books - look at are ideas. Most novels (and some nonfiction as well) provides answers to this question: Is there someone else like me out there?

And a lot of the books on the challenged/banned list try to explore that and answer those questions.

How do I come to terms with a serious loss? and Can we ever truly know the other people in our lives are examined in the challenged Looking for Alaska. Because there's a reference to a blow job (gone humorously wrong), it's been challenged in places.

What if it turns out I might have feelings for someone of the same sex? is a key issue in The Bermudez Triangle, which has been challenged for that reason. Because a small subset of parents believes one ought NOT have romantic or sexual interest in a person of the same sex, those parents figure nobody's kid - not theirs, not yours, not mine - ought to be able to ask that question. Or rather, that they ought not be able to find a book that looks at that question.

What if I've been abused by someone in my peer group? is a question found in Jo Knowles's Lessons From a Dead Girl, and it's come under fire in at least one school district because . . . well, I have no real idea why. Because it's a hard topic, and it's not pretty, and some parents would rather it didn't exist so if they don't have the book there they don't have to think about it, I suppose.

To those out there who think that challenging a book is okay, I say this:

If you want to stick your head in the sand and avoid these questions, fine. Don't buy the books. If you want to stick your kids' heads in the sand, I suppose that's your prerogative. Don't buy the books, and police what they read, and don't let them read the books either.

Your judgment is your own, and it is not superior to that of anyone else. You deserve no jurisdiction over the rest of us and what we read, so keep your sandbox at home and stop trying to bury books that might just answer questions for people in need.

Starting next week, a series on autumn-related poetry. I promise it will be far less ranty.

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