Reading is a skill that perfectly augments democracy. The ability to read the printed word and the right to choose what to read without restraint or censorship are a precious freedom that is far too often taken for granted by many Americans.
There are those among us who — with the most noble of intentions — firmly believe that not all reading material is created equal, and that some books should be removed from view and circulation as a matter of public interest. There is problem with that. Their appraisal on what is or, more specifically, what is not suitable for reading too often is based on personal beliefs rather than the established body of law that is the foundation of a free society and that is essential to intellectual growth.
The issue of censorship of reading material, particularly books and more particularly books for young readers, is complex. It is not always a front-burner issue, though it should be. Censorship and the banning of books usually become highly visible issues that catch the public attention but then quickly fade from view as another "topic of the day" takes their place. The topic deserves better than that. It is far too important to be relegated to tabloid fodder.
Banned Books Week, which will be observed Sept. 30-Oct. 6 and which marks its 30th anniversary this year, was initiated to keep the issue of book banning before the public and to promote the value of free and open access to information. The now traditional event is sponsored by a consortium that includes librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, legal scholars, teachers and various associations. It is endorsed by the Library of Congress Center for the Book. Their goal is not to force their own will and beliefs on all who read, but to remind the public that attempts to limit access to books is never-ending.
Those who would ban or challenge the inclusion of reading material in public libraries and schools have had their favorite targets over the decades. Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," generally regarded by some scholars as one of the greatest American novels, frequently is the target of would-be book banners. Ditto for John Steinbeck's timeless "Of Mice and Men," Maya Angelou's acclaimed "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Harper Lee's classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Alice Walker's compelling "The Color Purple."
Those who challenge Twain's work do so because of its language, especially its references to race. Angelou, Lee and Walker are singled out because of what some view as offensive language, sexually explicit scenes, racism or excessive violence. All, to be sure, are sensitive subjects, but the decision whether or not to read a book should not be made by a group of self-appointed guardians of public taste and morality. The choice of reading material, rather, is best made by individuals or, in the case of youngsters, by parents rather than those who arrogantly attempt to impose their own narrow-minded views on the general populace.
Unfortunately, book banning is an issue that won't go away. It's an abiding problem that crosses generations. Twain, Steinbeck, Lee, Walker and other icons of American literature aren't the only targets of censorship. More contemporary authors whose books are not as well known to the general public — though they often are favorites with young and young adult readers — also appear with regularity.
Atop the list of most challenged books in 2011, the last year for which complete statistics have been compiled by the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, is the interestingly titled "ttyl; ttfn; I8r, g8r" by Lauren Myracle. Banners say the book, part of a series, should be banned from school and public libraries because it contains offensive language, because of its religious viewpoint, because it is sexually explicit and because it contains descriptions of drug use. That's true, but that alone should not be cause for wholesale banning. Public access to books that provide an opportunity to seek and to express ideas should be absolute, restricted only by personal or parental choice.
"The Color of Earth," The Hunger Games," "My Mom's Having a Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy," "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," "Alice," "Brave New World, "What My Mother Doesn't Know," "Gossip Girl" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" complete last year's Top 10 list of most frequently challenged books. Most of the named books have large followings, and new titles by their authors, especially in the case of those in a series, are eagerly anticipated. Such an interest in books and reading should be regarded as a triumph at a time when parents and teachers almost universally lament the decline in interest in the printed word by youngsters.
It's not an exaggeration to say, in fact, that many of the books that are frequently targeted by those who would ban books are partially if not wholly responsible for helping to counter the well-documented and highly lamented downturn in recreational reading among youngsters, The notion that content — offensive language, sexual references, subject matter, violence, witchcraft or magic or anything else — alone should determine the availability of a book is nonsense. Books, even those that bother and distress people, should be readily available in most instances, and the decision to read or not read them should be a private one, not one prompted by emotion and overheated and groundless rhetoric.
Banned Book Week is marked in many ways. Some libraries create displays of frequently banned books to remind patrons of the issue. In many places, public readings from frequently banned books are offered at community centers or bookstores. Those and similar events, like the observance of Banned Books Week itself, are potent reminders that the freedom to read is always at risk.