Why We Read Banned Books

It’s Banned Books Week, so like many other readers, I find myself coming back to the question of censorship.

When I look over the list of books that most frequently get challenged or banned, my overwhelming thought is that, with a few exceptions, these are all either established classics, or stories that particularly moved me when I was growing up. It’s amazing to me, and a little fortifying, that stories still have the power to frighten and move so many people. So why are some people or groups trying to get rid of them?

Book banning stems partly from fear, of course. I’ve read before, somewhere, that horror movies are one of the best ways to tell what a culture is afraid of—zombies represent mindlessness, vampires represent sex, and so on. The same goes for what we don’t want others to read. Books tell us about who we are, and book banning tells me what we’re scared to admit about ourselves and the world we live in.

If we’re a country moving away from the “traditional” man-woman-child family, books about gay parents are challenged. If we don’t want to admit that we still don’t quite see different races equally, we smear out every derogatory word in Huck Finn and try to erase Invisible Man. If the amount of control our government has makes us uneasy, then Huxley and Orwell and Bradbury disappear from the shelves.

If I were the type to ban books, I’d probably be banning things like the ttyl series, because I get scared by the thought of losing the grace of the English language. (I haven’t even read the books, though, so for all I know they are an absolute celebration of language. Often that’s a big, self-defeating aspect of censorship–you haven’t tried to understand it first.)

I heard a story. I don’t know if it’s true, but it goes like this: A totalitarian government in a country in Asia banned 1984, for obvious reasons. However, a few people got contraband copies. They began circulating them in secret, reading together about the truth behind the world they thought they knew, hoping the knowledge could one day lead to their revolution. Life imitates art, right?

When it’s not happening for actual sinister government-control reasons, though, I’d say book banning often stems from a misplaced sense of idealism. I don’t really think the people who want to ban The Chocolate War are trying to bury their heads in the sand. I think many of them believe that children really aren’t that cruel, and that it’s unfair to portray them that way.

And if these people met cruel children later, they might think the books (and television, and video games) taught the children this behavior, rather than allow that we live in a world where kids hurt each other. Same with The Giver—why would you want to give a child the idea that there could be horror hiding behind something presenting itself as good? Wouldn’t it be better to teach kids about kindness and decency exclusively, in hopes that they might grow up to be kind and decent?

When he was writing Coraline, Neil Gaiman kept a G.K. Chesterton quote posted nearby for inspiration. It’s printed in the front pages of the book: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

That, to me, is what banned books overwhelmingly say. Yes, children can be cruel. They might beat you, or taunt you, or kill you. Yes, you might be cruel as well, or strange, or lonely. Yes, the president or your teachers or your parents may not always deserve your trust. Yes, you may want sex, despite what your parents or friends or God may say, and you may want it in ways that people you love have taught you are wrong. Yes, you have noticed correctly, that there are things in the world that are completely, heartbreakingly wrong, but you are not the only one who has noticed, or who cares about these things.

The kind of books that get banned are the kind of books that say we may be in a trap, or about to fall in one, but there is a way out. That’s what the book challengers fail to realize. They are hopeful, often beautiful books, even the ones that don’t end in triumph, even the ones where the innocent die, because the act of writing them means that someone cares that it has happened. And then we care, because we are part of the story now. Or when we think we are broken, someone understands. We’re not alone, no matter how we feel, and we’re not powerless. Dragons arise all the time, but they get defeated–if we know how.

The other day, I was telling my fiancé about a book I was reading, and mentioned that it had been challenged for a ban this year.

“You say that like it’s an award,” he said.

Isn’t it?

P.S. Throughout this post, I’ve linked to some of the books that have moved me or taught me about myself or the world (or how the world could or should be). All of them have been challenged or banned, most within the last ten years. Which challenged or banned books are important to you?

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4 thoughts on “Why We Read Banned Books

  1. I’ve been following this Week from afar and wondering about book censorship in Europe nowadays. I’m sure there it exists, only not much is heard about it. I think that next year I’ll talk to other European book bloggers and organize something on the topic.

  2. Pingback: More Banned Books! | Jessica Jonas

  3. I find it funny for books to be banned. They might as well say, “Don’t eat your vegetables. They’re bad for you!” I thought it was a good thing to read books. I’ve actually read a couple of these and had no idea they were banned. They should arrest every person for watching television. “Hey, get off that idiot-box and read a book, or something.” “I would, but the ones I wanna read are banned!” Banning books….. pssh!

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