(Guest blogged by NonnyMouse)
It probably comes as no surprise to regular C&L readers to learn that I grew up in a liberal-minded household; although at the time, being a kid, I didn't especially realize just how liberal such attitudes were. Our house was filled with books, magazines and newspapers, everything from a revered set of encyclopedias (the Google of the 1960's) to stacks of ratty romance paperbacks. We had at least forty years worth of National Geographic magazines, from which I gleaned juicy facts for hundreds of school reports. I learned to read from Humpty-Dumpty magazines at the age of three and had read Ivanhoe by the time I was seven, although I have to admit I didn't understand much of it at the time.
It didn't matter. What mattered was that nothing... nothing... was off-limits in our house when it came to the written word. I read Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and the complete works of Jonathan Swift, the back of cereal boxes, A Little Princess and Mein Kampf and Uncle Tom's Cabin and Black Beauty, Dr. Seuss and Archie comics, a huge box of pulp science-fiction novels from a garage sale, Jehovah's Witness Biblical tracts that got shoved in the letterbox, the perpetual Cherry Ames, Army Nurse novels my grandmother inevitably sent us every Christmas, every book ever written by Philip Wylie, several year's worth of a wonderful science magazine for teens to which my Aunt Ruth gave me a subscription (‘Build a Working Computer from Empty Matchboxes!), until the magazine went bust and folded. The written word, from high-brow to no-brow, was sacrosanct.
That liberal attitude toward the freedom of the written word was severely tested when at twelve I found a rather dog-eared paperback tucked behind some cans of paint in the garage - my father did a rather comical (and horrified) double-take when he found me lying on the sofa, legs dangling over one side, and puzzling over the nuances of what was an out-and-out hardcore pornographic novel. He nervously asked if I had any questions about what I was reading. ‘Do people really do this?' Um, sometimes. ‘Yuuuck! But you and Mom, you don't...?' Um, sometimes. ‘Double yuuuuuck!' Which probably did more to ease my dad's mind about my prepubescent proclivities than any euphemistic harangue on sex could ever have achieved. (My vast childhood reading habits also endowed me with this nifty erudite and comprehensive vocabulary, which comes in pretty handy now that I've grown up to be a published novelist).
So the idea that books, any book, should be banned - for any reason - is a complete anathema. Fahrenheit 451 is fiction. Censorship, unfortunately, is not.
That there is actually a week reserved for the championing of banned books, in America of all places, both saddens and heartens me. Saddens me because of the necessity, heartens me because it fights back against narrow-minded intolerance. This, then, the last week of September, from September 27th to October 4th, is Banned Books Week, a time when libraries and bookstores in every state put up displays of books to highlight the problem of censorship and celebrate our nation's right to the freedom to read whatever we damned well please. Since Banned Book Week was launched in 1982, more than a thousand books have been under pressure by those who would suppress the works of my fellow novelists and writers, because of sexual content, or slang, or violence, or profanity, or racial or religious objections, or political issues; from time-honoured classics to trashy airport novels. In the top ten books to be challenged last year alone, it is absolutely ludicrous that one of them should be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Some of the books challenged bugger belief: An illustrated edition of Little Red Riding Hood was banned in two California school districts in 1989, because the book shows the heroine taking food and wine to her grandmother, the school board citing concerns about alcohol consumption by children. Roald Dahl's wonderful classic James and the Giant Peach was removed from a school in Florida because it contained the word ‘ass', and placed in restricted access in libraries in Virginia because the book encouraged children to ‘disobey their parents'. In Eureka, Illinois, Geoffrey Chaucer's 600-year-old masterpiece, Canterbury Tales, was dropped from an advanced literature course in a senior preparatory high school class for... get this... objectionable ‘sexual content.' How insane is that?
In Gainesville, Hall County, Georgia, the Chestatee Public Library board hadn't even taken a final vote on whether or not to remove Nancy Friday's Women on Top from the shelves when someone decided to take the matter into their own hands, borrowed it and ‘accidently' destroyed it. The board did, however, vote not to replace it. Me, I'm tempted to send them a replacement copy, gratis.
It's not just schools and libraries; bookstores are also deciding what you, the customer, should and should not be allowed to read. Tim C. Leedom's The Book Your Church Doesn't Want You To Read was banned from Barnes & Noble in San Diego in 1995 because it was ‘too controversial for the bookstore's conservative clientele.'
And now, in the age of the Internet, the problem of book censorship has become more complex; the US government is doing its best to impose restrictions on both reader and writer of any kind of written word, including these you are reading right now, on this blog. In Loudoun County, Virginia, libraries were required to use filter programs to access the Internet that blocked certain sites such as, well, Banned Books Online. Despite a lawsuit that struck down this policy, in 2000, Congress compelled libraries across the country to filter all Internet connections or lose public assistance. Three years later, the US Supreme court upheld that decision, leaving our public libraries to choose between censorship and funding.
This is not just a liberal versus conservative issue, or religion versus science, or morality versus depravity, or even quality versus trash. There is a fine line between suppressing an author's work and suppressing the author. In a free and democratic society, everyone - absolutely everyone - should have the Constitutionally guaranteed right to think for themselves rather than have someone else dictate what they are allowed to read. Oh wait, we do. It's called the First Amendment.
So please, during Banned Book Week, support your local writers, dead or alive. I'd love to say go buy my books, God knows I could use the sales. But my work hasn't been banned. Yet. However, if we all do not actively defend the rights of others in my profession who have found themselves opposed by those who would censor our right to read, I could very well find myself joining the list of such esteemed writers as George Orwell, Maya Angelou, Judy Blume, William Faulkner, Alex Haley, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Aldous Huxley, Mike Royko, Voltaire, Joseph Heller, J. D. Sallinger, Anne Rice, Jean Auel, Anthony Burgess, Alice Walker, the Grimms Brothers, Arthur Miller, Anne Frank, Stephen King, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Isabelle Allende, Allen Ginsberg, Sir Thomas Malory, C. S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, William Golding, E. M. Forster, Philip Pullman, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., William Shakespeare...
...and the American Heritage Dictionary.
I kid you not.