When I think about people banning books, I often picture Marcia Langman from Parks and Recreation, in her pink cardigan and pearl necklace, standing up in a crowded room, shouting about unwholesomeness, reducing great works of literature to shameful smut.
I am lucky enough to never have experienced a pro-censorship PTA meeting. Most of the books that I read in middle school and high school were on the commonly banned list, and I applaud my teachers from not shying away from them. And yes, those books showed instances of sex, racism, and/or violence, among other distasteful or unsavory themes, but what a lot of censorship promoters don’t understand is those taboo subjects are merely the means to discussing a more meaningful end.
The Great Gatsby, for example, at its surface, is simply a book about rich people partying hard and sleeping with each other. When people take the time to dig deeper, though, it becomes evident that the story isn’t celebrating a lavish lifestyle; in fact, it’s cautioning against one. Those in the story are perpetually unhappy, constantly looking for a life and love they don’t have, and suffering extreme loneliness. Not only does it question whether the American Dream actually leads to fulfillment, but it also examines class and gender issues as well as educates us about the attitude of Americans in the Jazz Age. It’s a lot to learn from a bunch of rich people partying hard and sleeping with each other, if readers are open to the lessons it has to teach.
For many years of my youth, I claimed The Catcher in the Rye as my favorite book. I related to Holden Caulfield and his teen angst, his constant uncomfortableness, his inability to fit in. The book is constantly being challenged for vulgar language, sexual references, blasphemy, undermining of family values, encouragement of rebellion, and promotion of drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity. But what teenager doesn’t use vulgar language, tell sexual jokes or lie about his/her sexual experience, and want to rebel against parents? In order to discuss a teen’s life honestly, the author has to have a character display those undesirable traits. And when I read it as a teenager, I often thought that Holden was kind of a pervert, but that didn’t make me want to be a pervert. In fact, it helped me question my own sexuality and my own experiences with the opposite sex. I was grappling with the same issues Holden was, and though I may have handled my issues differently, it was comforting to know that I was not the only one dealing with those issues; my teenage angst and urges were normal. I was not alone.
The themes that get books banned are those same reasons that Catcher in the Rye has been banned. And I can’t help but assume that the people who challenge these books are the people who believe that vulgarity and sex and vices and rebellion and blasphemy shouldn’t exist. And maybe those trait shouldn't exist, but it’s a useless belief. They DO exist, they’ll always exist, and there’s really nothing anyone can do about it.
The people who plug their ears and hum so they don’t have to hear about the harsh realities of the world are doing themselves a great disservice. Education is the most important thing a person can do with their life. By learning about the world and its people, even the less favorable characteristics, a person becomes more empathetic, more patient, more understanding with their fellow humans. People will judge each other less and help each other more. Humans are not perfect, nor were we meant to be (if we were, why would we make so many mistakes?). If I could ban something, it would be people’s too-high expectations to be wholesome.
So I encourage you, reader, to pick up a banned book today and learn something that someone else might not want you to learn. You’ll be better off for it.
Happy Banned Books Week. For a list of commonly banned books, visit the American Library Association’s webpage.