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September 25, 2010

Support intellectual freedom by reading banned books

Daily Star

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When I studied American literature in high school back in the mid-1960s, the books I most enjoyed were contemporary novels about young people.

Holden Caulfield in "Catcher in the Rye" seemed smart-alecky as he trudged around Manhattan, and I remember thinking at the time how wonderful it was to have to read a book that teenagers could relate to, compared to the usual dry fare of Hawthorne or Emerson.

The boys attending a private school in "A Separate Peace" seemed worlds away but were our age, and the mystery surrounding a fall from a tree held our attention. Reading it was not the chore that Henry Adams was.

What my classmates and I didn't know was that those books were controversial and had been challenged or banned in some schools. "Catcher in the Rye" had been and remains one of the books most singled out for censorship attempts because of profanity and sexual references. "A Separate Peace" also contained what some people considered offensive language.

It was valuable to have those now-classics on the curriculum, which is why it is important during the coming days to acknowledge Banned Book Week, the annual event of the American Library Association to promote the freedom to read and the First Amendment.

There were 460 recorded attempts to remove materials from libraries in 2009 and more than 11,000 challenges since 1990.

A challenge is "a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness," according to the ALA.

Back in 1980, a group of parents in the Vernon-Verona-Sherill school district west of Utica tried to get the school to ban several books on the list of the best literature of the 20th century. The books the group challenged included "A Separate Peace," "The Grapes of Wrath," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Of Mice and Men" and "A Farewell to Arms."

Fortunately for students, the V-V-S school board refused to ban those books, as occurs with most challenges because of the efforts of the librarians, teachers, parents and booksellers who oppose censorship.

During the past century, sometimes books have been destroyed in formal burnings, most often in Nazi Germany, but also on numerous occasions in other countries, including the United States. Books burned in this country include "The Grapes of Wrath," "Ulysses" by James Joyce and "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut.

And, just recently, we must add to that list the Koran, the Muslim sacred text, which was burned by a Tennessee church group. However, it was a Florida pastor who made the headlines with his plan to burn the Koran on 9/ll, though he postponed the disturbing action at the last minute.

Yes, you'd think we would have progressed beyond Nazi-like thinking by now, but authoritarianism always tries to repress free speech, whether it's represented by a nation or a religion.

In this age of the Internet and such a free flow of information, however, it is much more difficult for censors to keep books or their electronic versions away from youths and adults who might want them.

As a result, attempts to ban books have become largely symbolic, and often can have the opposite effect. Just tell a teenager that "Catcher in the Rye" has been banned from the library or curriculum, and suddenly the desire to find and read that novel increases. It is similar to trying to restrict access to certain television shows and websites: censorship creates taboos and its purpose often backfires.

It is your library's contention that restricting access to books or other media should always be the job of parents and adults, and not the task of some governing authority. The intellectual freedom to explore a variety of viewpoints is at the core of democratic liberty.

For example, the most-common reason given for challenging books in recent years is sexuality, and especially homosexuality. That's not smart. Yes, let's try to keep such topics locked away as taboo so we can have more generations of young people growing up without an accurate understanding of them.

It won't work, and in the process a successful book challenge could be depriving young people of the opportunity to experience good literature that contributes to an understanding of modern themes. Whether we like those themes or not, they are prevalent and should not be censored.

Banned Book Week begins today and runs through Friday. Many libraries have displays to highlight books that have been banned or often challenged in the past. Take a look and, better yet, read a banned book this week and see for yourself that there really is no reason it should be tossed into the fire.

Cary Brunswick of Oneonta is a freelance writer and editor and can be reached at