Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ban This Book (It Will Really Boost Sales)!

Another post celebrating Banned Book Week

In high school one of my friends had his own garage band, and my favorite song they did was called, "Ban This Record (It Will Really Boost Sales)." As teens we were well aware of the irony that banning something marked it as controversial, and therefore interesting, especially to anyone who wanted to seem free-thinking or rebellious.

Controversial is one thing, toxic is another.

Over the summer I attended a writer's workshop where our teacher told us that the film industry has made a science of manipulating people. They know where to put the humor, the drama, the violence, the sensuality, the horror, etc., in order to extract the most money from the wallets of the audience. As I listened to this, my eyes got bigger and bigger and finally I raised my hand to say, "You make it sound like this is all about making money. I believe that entertainment has the power to help people or to hurt people. Is there anyone out there who cares about that?"

"There's a lot of pirates and gangsters out there," he said, "But there are a few who care about making good art."

That's not what I asked. I want to know, do they care what it does to people?

In the past year, two of my dear friends had their marriages destroyed by pornography. I've seen up close what a sexual addiction can do to a man's personality. The people who sell that stuff don't care that they're hurting others, no more than the people who sell crack or meth care. Some things are too dangerous to play around with. Some things shouldn't be left out where anyone can find them and get into trouble.

Some books should be banned. I would like to trust the human race enough to say that no one would write a book that would hurt other people, but whether out of hate or lust or greed or ignorance, toxic words are published.

Question is, where to draw the line?

When my daughter was five, her best friend came over to our house one day, looked up at our prized collection of Harry Potter hard-covers, and said, "I thought you were Christians."

"We are," I said, wondering where this was coming from.

"Then why do you like Harry Potter? It's about witches and evil."

Oh. "Your parents told you that?" She nodded. "Have they read it?" She shook her head. "I want you to respect what your parents tell you, but I've read Harry Potter, and the magic in it is silly magic, like in Cinderella. You've watched Cinderella, right?" she nodded. "The magic in Harry Potter is bibbity-bobbity boo magic. Make-believe. When they talk about witches in the Bible they mean something entirely different."

There's a whole spectrum of toxicity out there, and in my opinion, Harry Potter falls at the "mostly harmless" end of it. I've only read the first of the "Twilight" books, and as a mother I didn't like the way Bella broke some fundamental safety rules of dating and got away with it, but I told my daughter she could read it if she wanted to, and then we'd discuss it afterward.

There are other books that I have banned at my house. "Captain Underpants," for example.

Which brings me to another point. What does it mean if a book is banned? It means that we, as a society, or a school district, or a library, or a parent, DO NOT APPROVE OF THIS MATERIAL. It sends a message, helps define the boundaries. I think boundaries are good, but they should not be posted ignorantly.

There's a difference between being offended and being harmed.

Some of the books I was assigned to read in high school English class made me uncomfortable, and so I would ask for alternate reading assignments. I'm very sensitive to foul language--it makes me feel like someone is blowing craters in my brain--so I traded "Of Mice and Men" for "Lord of the Flies," and loved it. One of my friends couldn't believe I did that, because in her mind "Lord of the Flies" was a horrible disgusting violent book and "Of Mice and Men" was great literature.

One book had offended me, the other had offended my friend. That was a huge eye-opener for me. Someone I liked and respected had a completely different reaction to the same two books. I don't think either book should have been banned simply because certain people found them offensive. It was good for my friend and I to be able to make choices about what we wanted to and didn't want to read.

But when does offensive become harmful? Harmful enough to take a book off the shelf?

This discussion will never be over. Should all offensive things be banned? No. Should all offensive things be allowed? No! This discussion will never be over.

So let's discuss it.


  1. Great post. I love how you brought out that each of us have different sensitivities.

  2. Wow Rebecca this is a fabby look at book banning. I like your thought process. Never been a fan of banning but I appreciate your insight. Very nice!

  3. I have to agree that these are amazing insights. And everyone has a different opinion. But different books speak to different people. Like with SPEAK, some girls might be offended by what happens in the book, while others have actually lived it and this helps as part of their therapy. The same goes for other books. In some ways, books touch us the way other media can't, and help us find ourselves and grow into who we are.

  4. I think that not all books are appropriate in all settings. I would expect an elementary school library to be a safe place, where the books are free from overly disturbing material. Studies have shown that the brain makes very little distinction between what we experience in real life and what we experience vicariously when reading. Exposing young children to traumatic and disturbing media is, I think, a form of child abuse.

    I believe in the value of innocence.

    But I also understand how children who have lived through traumatic and disturbing things can benefit from reading about the experiences of others. It is a difficult question. For a book like that, maybe keep a copy in the counselor's office to be used with discretion and parental permission?

  5. Great post, Rebecca. I agree wholeheartedly that, as parents, we have a responsibility not to expose our children to certain things. And, based on their personality, it may cover more things and last longer. And that's funny about your experience with Harry Potter. I had a good friend who burned it. I was shocked, because I really enjoy them. I liked that it has a clear line between good and evil, as well as the responsibility to stop it, so I read the whole series to my children. You never know.

    Thanks for your great insights!

  6. Thank you so much for not immediately dismissing the idea of book banning. I am generally not a fan and don't have a problem with many of the books that people haven banned. However, there are occasionally books which, like pornography, children should not be exposed to. There are also books that may be beneficial, but inappropriate for certain children. I think the answer is a compromise between concerned parents who engage in an educated dialogue with their local schools and libraries, and responsible librarians who choose books that are appropriate for their readers.

  7. Thank you, Sierra!

    Many well known cases of book banning are, in my opinion, uninformed and excessive. My husband and I had a good chuckle when some places started banning "Harry Potter" but didn't make a peep about "The Golden Compass."

    But once again, just like I wouldn't ask my eight-year-old to run a marathon, I wouldn't ask him to face the darkest truths about human nature until he's built the strength within himself to endure it.

  8. Such a great post! It's so true that different people are sensitive to different things.

    I recently read "The Book Thief" because our library recommended it. Though I enjoyed the writing and the story, I had to force myself to finish it because - while there was no "F-word" - there was enough language that I felt very uncomfortable. Two days after I finished it, I asked a good friend of mine if she had read it and she answered, "No, but I just ordered a copy from amazon.com because I thought our RS book club might like to try a YA fiction." I was astounded - not that she was considering it, but that it was advertised as young adult. The main character is 11-13 years old, and there wasn't much violence, but I wouldn't choose to put that much language in the hands of a pre-teen or early teen... but that's just me.

  9. this is such a fantastic post and more people need to read it! everyone's on the bandwagon of "no book should ever be banned" but i choose to be on the wagon of "no book should ever be required reading" especially where children are concerned.

    just last week, my 12 yr old daughter was given a required reading assignment. the book is a wonderful piece of classic literature - but not for a 12 year old. we had a family discussion about it and felt strongly that my daughter should not read the book. she was happy with the decision, even though it would put her in the library for the next 5 weeks during class time.

    but, the next morning, i received a call from the school. my daughter had been selected for the Gifted and Talented program! not only would she not be required to read that book, but she wouldn't have to sit in the library.

    honestly, i feel as though the blessing of GT was a direct reflection of our good choices and the conviction to do what's right - even when it's not popular.

  10. Great comment, Amie. I've long thought that someone should create an "audience's bill of rights." Art, as a form of communication, is something that requires both creator and audience, and I think that there should be a balance of power between the two.

    And personally, at twelve years old, I would have been in heaven sitting in the library for five weeks. It sure would have beat reading "The Pigman." Sign me up!


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