You Don’t Have to Burn Books to Destroy a Culture. Just Get People to Stop Reading Them.

When I was in middle school, I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events.  I owned most of them, but once I had read through those, I went to my school library (where I was a frequent shopper) to see if I could check out the rest.  Not seeing the books on the shelves, I asked the librarian if the library had them.  “No we don’t,” she said in a strangely tight voice.

“Is there any way you could order them?” I asked.

“No.  We don’t think those books are appropriate to have here.”

Feeling embarrassed without really knowing why, as if I had reached for something forbidden and been caught in the act, I walked away slowly, passing by even the Dear Americas, my trusty fallbacks.  What was wrong with A Series of Unfortunate Events?  I had them at home.  My parents didn’t seem to mind that I read them.  I had friends who read them.  But if they weren’t allowed at the library, didn’t that mean there was something inherently dangerous about them?

That night, I paged through The Bad Beginning, looking for some sign of Satan (I was in Catholic school at the time).  Nothing.  It was just a book, really.  A good book, a book I liked, but just a book.  There was no ooze seeping from between the covers, no curls of smoke or beckoning witch claws.

Finding no tangible reason not to, I scrounged up my twelve-year-old savings and bought the next book myself.  It was fantastic, but because of the library incident, the series had soured for me.  Reading it in class, I was self-conscious, afraid I was breaking some grown-up law that somehow divided books, things I had always viewed as free and untouchable, into categories.

To this day, I’m not sure what the reasoning for the Unfortunate Events banning was.  Perhaps because they’re rather morbid (although satirically so, I must add), perhaps because there are parts that might be considered violent (someone is eaten by leeches, at one point).  I’m not sure, furthermore, if the banning was a result of a parent’s objections, a teacher’s, or a librarian’s.

What I do know is that that incident, my first conscious brush with banning, shaped the way I read and the way I thought about reading for years to come.  I might be generous, and say that it made me more aware of the fragility of one’s basic rights, even in today’s modern society (that is, to the extent that a twelve-year-old understands such things).  That it did me a good turn, in a way.  But I don’t know that I want to be generous, because book banning, in my twenty-two-year-old opinion, is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable.

I don’t care if you don’t want to read a certain book.  I don’t care if you don’t want your child to read a certain book.  I don’t care if you don’t think I should be reading a certain book.  None of these things give you an ounce of justification for banning said book.  For saying, essentially, that because of your personal opinion, you get to deny fellow human beings their basic rights.

We all have the right to read, and to learn, and to explore.  We all have the right to take our resulting education and to make what we will of it.  I think that this applies to 6th graders as well as to college students.  Words are powerful things.  If people didn’t think so, there wouldn’t be book banning at all.  But words do not make choices for us.  Reading A Series of Unfortunate Events did not provoke me to stick a baby in a cage and dangle said cage out of a tower.  Don’t Ask Alice didn’t prompt my suicide.  Mrs. Dalloway hasn’t turned me into a lesbian.

Strangely, despite having read hundreds of potentially ‘dangerous’ books in my time, I’m still here, and I’m still okay.

There are four days left in Banned Books Week.  I encourage you to spend those days reading one of the gloriously damaging banned or challenged books on this list.