You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

From September 30th through to October 6th of this year is Banned Books Week. The week is a celebration of freedom of speech and the press, specifically in the case of books. It spreads the word of books that have been banned or challenged (meaning that people have tried to get them banned) and encourages people to read and appreciate them, or at least the fact that we are able to read them. The week seems to be a mostly American invention, but I suppose that’s appropriate, given that they are the country with some of the most famous freedom-oriented rules in the world. But regardless of which country started this event off, book censorship is a worldwide issue and one that everyone should be able to appreciate.

A few days ago, I wanted to read a book called Christmas Jars by Jason F. Wright. The trouble was that I couldn’t. The reason for this is the fact that I live in a country where the book is not sold and would be confiscated if it was brought into the country – simply because its title contains the word “Christ”. This is just one example of books being censored, challenged, and/or banned, but there are many more instances happening all the time, all over the world.

Book censorship is something that I feel strongly about, as I’m sure many book lovers do. It’s an unfair restriction of people’s freedom of speech, press, and choice. And really, it doesn’t make much sense. I’m not sure if the majority of people who challenge books are trying to avoid reading the books themselves, or trying to stop other people from reading them. If the former, then they can just use a very simple way to avoid reading a book that doesn’t involve preventing other people from reading it. Salman Rushdie, the author of the Satanic Verses – who got a death warrant placed on his head as a result of attempted censorship – put it this way: “it is very, very easy not to be offended by a book. You just have to shut it.”

“It is very, very easy not to be offended by a book. You just have to shut it.”

Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses

On the other hand, if people are purposefully trying to stop other people from reading a book……well, that just seems bizarre to me. For one thing, it’s a deliberate attempt to restrict other people’s freedom, which is obviously wrong. For another, half the time people haven’t even read the books when they try to ban them. Not that reading a book provides you with enough reason to try and get a book banned, but the fact that so many people who try to get books banned haven’t even read said books only demonstrates the ignorance of the whole principle. Banning books will only spread ignorance. And ignorance is, as Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty – which was apparently banned in South Africa during apartheid for having the word “black” in the title, even though it’s about a horse – would say, “[ignorance] is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness”.

“[Ignorance] is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness”

From Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

Anyway, the point of Banned Books Week is partially to celebrate the banned or challenged books, so here’s a list of my personal favourites. One of the funny parts of this whole thing, though, is how obvious the reasons for banning books make the ignorance of the banners. You can see this especially with the reasons-for-challenging of these books:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird. Reasons for challenging: offensive language, racism. Okay, so maybe the former makes a little bit of sense, but really any language in it (which I didn’t think there was much of) is just there to show the nature of life in Maycomb during the time the book was set. As for the racism – well, if you have read the book, you will understand that the entire book is about being against prejudice and racism. It does discuss the issue, which manages to offend some people, but the overall message is one of anti-racism.
  • Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Reasons for challenging: contains pro-communist ideas. 1984 is a novel that takes place in a dystopian world, which is, by definition, a negative world that is unpleasant to live in. This dystopian world has many parallels to certain communist, dictatorial societies. So how people complained that it was pro-communist, I don’t know. The book was banned in both the USSR and the US when it first came out, for both pro-communist and anti-communist reasons. I think that says it all.
  • The Great Gatsby. Reasons for challenging: language and sexual references. Other than one rather famous quote that features a swear word, I don’t really remember there being many offensive references or uses of language in the book. Maybe people who haven’t read the book would know better than me.

These are some of my favourite banned and/or challenged books, but they are by no means all such books. The Harry Potter books have also been challenged for promoting Paganism and Satanism. This seems an odd thing to focus on when the series features such an emphasis on love, friendship, and the triumph of good over evil. Another children’s book that groups have tried to ban is And Tango Makes Three. I haven’t actually read it, but from what I’ve heard about it is centred on the story of two male penguins, called Roy and Silo, who lived at Central Park Zoo in New York. They demonstrated mating behaviours normally seen between opposite-sex penguins, and even attempted to hatch a rock in place of an egg. Seeing this, the zookeepers provided them with a real egg that could not have been cared for by its biological parents, and soon after their baby penguin Tango was born. This was based on a true story, but anti-gay groups have tried to get it banned anyway.

“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash.”

From To Kill a Mockingbird, a supposedly racist novel, by Harper Lee.

In general, I don’t think you should restrict people’s freedom to read, write, and say what they want unless they are actually harming other people. And I mean in this in the “Hey, I’m going to write an article that persuades people to threaten the lives of innocent humans.” kind of harmful way – not the “This book is turning our children into gays and Pagans. Oh, the horror!” harmful way. Reading and writing are amazing tools that spread knowledge and decrease world ignorance, which hopefully helps to increase world tolerance and peace. Banning books does the opposite. So if you don’t like a book and it’s not directly hurting anyone, just try not to read it. If it’s really offensive, you’ll probably find that there are plenty of other people happy to ignore it, too. But let’s celebrate freedom – of all kinds – by letting people read and write what they want. Maybe we can even read some challenged or banned books to commemorate this special event.

Happy Banned Books Week, everybody!

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3 Responses to You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

  1. Sid says:

    Hip Hip hooray!!!

  2. Nosey Blighter says:

    So what is the worst part of censorship?

  3. Sid says:

    IKEA suffered from censorship this week of their catalologue, it happens now more than ever. Well said :)

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