We need to be more accepting of those who “turn the world to glass.” Like Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his essay, “The Poet,” the ideal individual in society is unconventional and deviates from the norm in order to expose society to the realities of the world. However, people like these, including the authors of many controversial yet important texts, are people we often need but do not want in our lives, so we try to silence their voices and society’s access to their bold claims.
Last Sunday, Sept. 24, marked the beginning of the 35th celebration of Banned Books Week. Started in 1982 by Judith Krug, a past employee of the American Library Association (ALA) and former director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), the goal of the week is to bring awareness to the books that are challenged or banned in public libraries in America.
But books aren’t banned anymore, right? Many people probably assume this to be true, especially living in the United States, a country so proud of its Constitution and the freedoms declared under the First Amendment. However, if anything, book challenging and banning are becoming more prevalent and problematic.
Challenges, filed by people trying to prohibit books and other materials in their libraries or mandatory school curricula, mostly stem from concerns including “sexually explicit” content, “offensive language,” age inappropriateness, LGBTQ representation, and “religious viewpoints,” according to studies conducted by the OIF on reported book challenges. Of the hundreds of challenges filed and reported in 2016, more than half of the materials that were challenged were actually banned and removed from those particular libraries’ circulation. According to OIF data, bans previously were only implemented, on average, for 10 percent of total yearly challenges. The book bannings of 2016 are a concerning escalation from the norm.
With arguments about how society is becoming too “politically correct,” free speech and censorship have been the focal point of many discussions. People are worried about their ideas being suppressed in favor of more diverse and inclusive perspectives, yet fail to realize that they themselves often treat opposing people in the same way. In fact, the OIF reported that, “of the 2015 Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, nine of them contained diverse content... includ[ing] content by or about people of color, LGBTQ people and/or people with disabilities.”
In the divided and polarized society we live in, we must learn to recognize our differences and the rights granted to us under the First Amendment.
While people may have conflicting viewpoints, none really have the right to silence others’ voices or restrict access to materials just because they clash with their values or beliefs. This year, Banned Books Week’s theme was appropriately named “Our Right to Read,” and encouraged people to express their opposing views on problematic literature, instead of immediately pushing to ban.
Most, if not all, of the concerns leading to book challenges are subjective, merely a matter of differing opinions. Everyone should be able to freely choose to read as they please and not restrict others’ access to education and broader perspectives.
Several years ago, the Library of Congress created an exhibit entitled, Books that Shaped America. Among the 100 titles included on the list, 30 of them have been challenged or banned. Truthfully, this makes a lot of sense. The most influential works are typically the most controversial — they make such a big impact because they leave us reeling from their words and the messages within. They open our eyes to new perspectives and make transparent the bitter truth of our reality (or the harsh realities of the past), which we try so desperately to ignore or forget.
Restricting books is not the solution. Facing conflict and dissent is easier said than done, but it’s the only way society will ever come close to being where it should be. Because even if we have differing views and our ideal societies don’t seem to align, we all essentially want the same things: respect and acknowledgement. Whenever we shut others down, nobody wins — resentment only grows, and the chasm between each side widens.
As Banned Books Week comes to a close, we must remember that although officially over, the celebration doesn’t have to stop. We should
continue to carry out the values that the week has taught us and become well-informed, vocal members of society. Rather than shutting each other down and shying away from dissonant opinions, we must strive to educate ourselves through literature and conversation.