Today is the beginning of the 30th anniversary of Banned Book Week (http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/bannedbooksweek). Censorship has been an issue that I have always been very passionate about. While I do not promote hate speech, I do believe that it is imperative that we read from a wide variety of perspectives. I am a strong advocate of critical analysis of all information that one encounters, whether that be in the form of books to news broadcasts to blogs to music. I think it is important that we stay aware of the issues of our current time as well as the issues of the past. History does repeat itself and hopefully as more people become aware of this, we can change enough to ensure that the horrors of the past do not become horrors of the present.
Since I learned how to read, my family can attest that it is unusual to find me without a book. In 1984, I was determined to read George Orwell’s “1984” although my English teacher at the time as well as the school librarian kept on me about how that book was too advanced for me and I needed to select something else for now, something easier to read and understand. My stubborn side won out and I made it through “1984” and am glad I did. The challenge of reading this book and thinking about the ramifications of a society under surveillance not only heightened my confidence in my reading comprehension, but also made me realize that all of our actions have consequences and how many individuals will behave differently if they are aware of being under surveillance. I truly attribute this to my fascination with psychology and sociology to this day.
My first encounter with the notion of banned books happened in college. I had been fortunate enough until that point to have very open and supportive English teachers, even allowing me to read Stephen King books for book reports in the 7th grade. In college I was enrolled in an elective course called “Could It Be Satan?” and yes it was named after the Saturday Night Live skit with Dana Carvey as the Church Lady. My professor was a riot. I was surprised however on the first class period when we were encouraged to have our parents sign permission slips regarding the reading list. I could not understand why anyone over the age of 18 would need this permission to read a few books. It turns out that when my professor taught the course a few years earlier several parents had become irate at the reading list and as a result, she had to make several concessions in order to teach the course again. It is at that time that I ran across Banned Book Week and the American Library Association’s battle for freedom of speech, granted this was before the Internet, so tracking down and disseminating information about banned books and the important role that school boards play in selecting and approving curriculum was more challenging.
Ever since, I have been a strong advocate for parents being aware of the agenda and philosophies of the school board members and to remain involved. A few years ago, a local school district was debating the reading list for the optional summer honor’s students reading list. One school board member wanted most of the books banned even though participation in the reading program was optional and if a student was uncomfortable with a particular book, the teacher assigned a less controversial alternative. I was honored to be among the hundreds of speakers at the marathon school board meeting that night.
There are a lot of complaints about kids and young adults these days and I admit that at times, I am among the complainers. Nothing irks me more than when there is a power outage and neighbor kids whine about having nothing to do. Light a candle and read a book is my suggestion. I truly feel we need to expose ourselves to the controversial, to the uncomfortable in order to develop a cohesive set of values that will guide us through the challenges that we encounter in our lives.
So I encourage you to check out the American Library Association’s website dedicated to the 30th anniversary of banned book week. I encourage you to go out and not only read what is on that list but read in general. Read across all genres and take that jump into the unknown and let your imagination run wild instead of relying on television and cinema to squash your independent thought.