By: James Han, Contributor
In Kassel, Germany, behind the Fridericanum Museum, is a temporary installation known as The Parthenon of Books. This artwork is a replica of the actual Greek Parthenon, except it is composed of a steel frame and over 100,000 books that have been banned in some form across the world. The location of the piece is a famous park where Nazis burned around 2,000 books in a campaign to drown out voices that did not agree with their vision for Germany. The artist, Marta Minujín, wants the work to spark debate about literary censorship, which still persists across the world.
Well, Ms. Minujín, your art has succeeded in that regard. Banned books seem like they’re a thing of the past or only a phenomenon found in underdeveloped and authoritarian states. After all, banning books has been the hallmark of dictators that want to stamp out ideas that counter their positions. However, the United States also has a legacy of banning books. The US has had many different demographic groups with varying beliefs since the country consisted only of 13 colonies. Despite this, demographic majorities allowed books that stood against certain religious beliefs or portrayed taboo topics to be quickly removed from the shelves of public libraries and schools. Some of these books are classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The irony of banning Fahrenheit 451, a book about banning and burning books, is insane. What these books all have in common are riveting social commentaries about their respective time periods. They also utilize profanity and feature writing that is graphic or downright offensive. All of these books have shaped hearts and minds, as well as brought important ideas into light while allowing readers to contemplate hard-hitting truths.
Those books were all banned at some point in American history and some of them are still banned in schools and public libraries today. While profanity, graphic violence, and sexual language are not tolerated in high schools, it is important to remember that books such as Catcher in the Rye and Fahrenheit 451 would simply not have the same impact without featuring the very real nature of the world, profanity included. The racial themes and slurs in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are essential in conveying the reality of the atrocities of slavery and racism. furthermore, the messages of these books are vital to understanding the time period and human nature itself. As a student, I am fortunate enough to attend a high school where Fahrenheit 451 and The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin are both taught to students. Because of these gritty and real books, students are able to see a side of the world that they would never be able to see without experiencing such atrocities firsthand.
The problem with banned books is not relegated to the past. In fact, complaints are submitted every year for books to be removed from public and school libraries or curriculums. The American Library Association has the Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), which handles challenges about banned books. In 2014, the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie was removed from supplemental reading lists because the subject matter was viewed as racist, and “anti-family.” For those who haven’t read the book – part of my school’s freshman curriculum – the book exposes the harsh realities of life on Native American reservations and the racism that Native Americans endure through the lens of a child with an alcoholic father. Another challenged book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, follows an introverted high schooler and his adventures with drugs, sex, rape, and homosexuality with two high school seniors. This book was challenged for the aforementioned subject matter. It is understandable that such graphic content is being challenged, but the very removal of these books from shelves undermines the intrinsic educational value that libraries and schools can provide.
For young audiences there is merit to banning incredibly explicit books. A middle schooler doesn’t always have the maturity necessary to tackle hard-hitting concepts and might not have the ability to gain that maturity. Banned books become an incredibly serious problem when books aren’t banned for obscenities or graphic content, but the political issues that these books seek to identify. For example, in 2016 the book I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings was challenged for talking about “homosexuality” and “religious viewpoints.” The book was a picture book about the real life story of the author, Jazz Jennings, and her struggle with realizing that she identified as a girl but was born in a boy’s body. The transgender subject matter lead parents to challenge this book about discovering self-identity. The book was designed so that story of being transgender could be accessible to young children who are in the process of discovering the world around them and themselves at the same time. Another picture book that was challenged in 2015 was And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, a picture book about the true story of two penguins at the zoo who raised a chick together. The story was challenged for being anti-family and containing controversial political and religious viewpoints. The book is about a cute story at the zoo, a story that involves penguin parenting, one of the most innocent things that someone could put in a picture book. Yet, the book has been challenged seven times in the decade since it was published. For young children, what they read has an important effect on their development. Hiding the veritable fact that some children are, in fact, transgender or that homosexuality exists, in no way prevents children from being transgender or homosexual. Reading these books doesn’t mean that a child will “become homosexual,” but simply allows the child to read about these complex feelings in a way that makes them easy to understand.
Of course, my objection to banning books concerning LGBTQ+ comes from my left-leaning political viewpoint. By protecting these books in the name of intellectual freedom, we also must protect books that spew vitriolic hate being banned in our libraries and schools. Books such as Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Znamya are incredibly hateful and have been the fuel for the deaths of millions of Jews. Even the mention of these books can bring back horrific memories and stories of atrocities committed against the Jewish population. Mein Kampf is, at its core, a book filled with anti-Semitism and rhetoric that ended the lives of millions. The influence of the book largely fuels why Mein Kampf is not often found in public libraries and schools. Naturally, there is fear over what a hate-filled book could inspire someone to do. The possibility of inspiring hate groups that would rally around such a vitriolic flag leads to such aversion. To take a more modern point, what about books that spread vitriolic hate towards Muslims? Books that are anti-American? Maybe banning such a book could at least limit these possibilities?
Unfortunately, suppressing a book physically has never been able to truly stifle its influence. Banning books that spew hate can also have damaging effects. When books are banned, it only increases the demand for these books, which puts books in the hands of people who aren’t as likely to examine them academically. Furthermore, such a book would be given more credibility as conspiracy sells. If the government bans a book, it must mean that the book tells the reader something that the government isn’t willing to tell us. Dystopias like 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Adolus Huxley and Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess have been banned by dictatorships and authoritarian governments across the world. Yet, these books seem to make their ways into the hands of hopeful individuals committed to speaking out. Throughout US history, books such as The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck sparked controversy the government attempted to stifle the message of these texts. After The Jungle was published, the debate about urban labor and food safety in the meatpacking industry lead to the passing of the Pure Food and Meat Inspection Act. The Grapes of Wrath and the furor surrounding it prompted Congress to pass legislation to help migrant farmers. Ultimately, it is the message of such works of literature that resonates because they are fundamental truths.
The operative word is “truths.”
Books with messages that are fundamentally true are powerful. A book like Mein Kampf, when examined critically in public discourse, fails because it lacks any sort of substance and truth. In today’s world hate dwells not in the libraries, but on online forums where the facts are obscured and often twisted. Books that spew lies and vitriolic hate are able to gain traction when they are not examined critically, and it is then that such books gain the power to inspire hateful actions. Lies already gain credibility when they are put down on paper – or online – because we live in a society that values the written word. To combat the hate and lies that are spread by such books, they must be left in the public eye, debated, and debunked. Only then will the inherent lies and hate be dispelled.
Generation Z must play an active role in preventing literary censorship. Our generation is entering a new world where ideas are more accessible than ever. However, literature that runs counter to commonly held beliefs or take political standpoints is constantly being challenged and removed from school curriculums, libraries, and public access. Books such as 1984 teach readers about dissent. Books like I am Jazz can give young children an insight into what might be a confusing situation and tell them that they aren’t alone. Books like Mein Kampf are works of propaganda and outright lies. All of these books deserve to be protected by intellectual freedom. Generation Z is facing a world where the alt-right is growing because they are tired of their voice being pushed out. The establishment in politics is constantly being pushed out and social issues feature in politics every day. Literature that features social commentary of the past allows for a clearer understanding of our world today because such literature encapsulates fundamental realities. Literature that makes social change easier to navigate for young children allows them to make sense of an incredibly complex world without throwing them into the deep end. Literature that spreads hate teaches society how to deal with hate by demonstrating that hate and lies will not be able to gain traction so long as we identify it. Generation Z cannot stand idly by as the tools that will allow us to handle the society we enter are placed out of reach. Banning books doesn’t protect youth from the truth; It only strengthens lies and weakens the ability of youth to handle the ever-changing world they must enter – so the responsibility falls on us, Generation Z, to fight for our intellectual freedom.
I’d like to conclude with a quotation by none other than Ray Bradbury. “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Image Credits: By Charles Hackey [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons