Thursday, October 01, 2009

Vermont Authors Speak Out for Banned Books

This is Banned Books Week, the annual observance of challenges to freedom of expression and thought sponsored by the American Library Association. This wek the Vermont chapter of the ACLU sponsored a read-in, at which Vermont authors read selections from banned or challenged books.

Lending their voices -- literally -- to the cause, 13 Vermont writers including Ron Powers, David Macaulay and Tom Bodett gathered in a steepled small-town church to read passages for a rapt crowd.

''It's a chance to sort of live out one of my fantasies, which is to do a book that gets banned,'' said the 62-year-old Macaulay, the author of ''The Way Things Work.'' ''Nothing would make me happier.''

The celebration of Banned Books Week is an opportunity to think about librarians and all they do for freedom of thought, including challenges to the so-called Patriot Act, and their perennial struggles to keep books on the shelves where library patrons can read them and use their own brains to evaluate the ideas they contain.

In addition to our event in Vermont, I'd like to focus on two libraries. One is a school library in which a parent challenged a children's book called The Million Dollar Kick. A mother objected to a single paragraph that she found difficult to explain to her 3rd grader. The book will not be removed from restricted access until the family no longer has any children at the school. Just like that, with no apparent explanation, the rest of the readers of the school will be blocked from access to the book. Sure, it's still in the collection, but the fact is that if it's not on the public shelves the patrons won't see it, won't know about it, and won't read it. This seems like a pretty craven surrender by the schools. Of course, it's in Texas, so I can't imagine they get much support for freedom of thought down there.

On the other hand, we have an excellent example of a librarian standing up for his patrons' rights in the context of a book called Uncle Bobby's Wedding. As you might guess, it was a challenge to a book about the narrator's uncle's same-sex wedding for the usual reasons. Jamie Larue, a librarian and blogger, has posted his thoughtful, respectful response to the challenging parent, and I'll just give you a little taste of it.

Your third point, about the founders' vision of America, is something that has been a matter of keen interest to me most of my adult life. In fact, I even wrote a book about it, where I went back and read the founders' early writings about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What a fascinating time to be alive! What astonishing minds! Here's what I learned: our whole system of government was based on the idea that the purpose of the state was to preserve individual liberties, not to dictate them. The founders uniformly despised many practices in England that compromised matters of individual conscience by restricting freedom of speech. Freedom of speech – the right to talk, write, publish, discuss – was so important to the founders that it was the first amendment to the Constitution – and without it, the Constitution never would have been ratified.

How then, can we claim that the founders would support the restriction of access to a book that really is just about an idea, to be accepted or rejected as you choose? What harm has this book done to anyone? Your seven year old told you, “Boys are not supposed to marry.” In other words, you have taught her your values, and those values have taken hold. That's what parents are supposed to do, and clearly, exposure to this book, or several, doesn't just overthrow that parental influence. It does, of course, provide evidence that not everybody agrees with each other; but that's true, isn't it?

Not all the comments are positive, although most are. Not everyone will have the same reaction, or will want to respond to a book challenge in the same way. What I think is good is that the writer lays out the substance of the challenge, responds directly to it, and explains and defends the principles of freedom of thought on which access to library material depends.

I bet you have some banned books in your house. Take a moment this week to appreciate the centuries of struggle that have enabled you to enjoy them.

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