Book-burning mentality sears society’s soul

Monday, September 28, 1998

In the movie “City of Angels,” the angels’ home away from heaven is not a
church or sanctuary but a library. After a painful day of collecting souls,
the angels gather at the library to renew their own souls by watching mere
mortals find a piece of heaven in books.

Now that is a movie with a message.

Unfortunately it is a message lost on too many in our society today.

While lovers of books and freedom around the world took heart from last
week’s agreement by the Iranian government to lift the death sentence
against novelist Salman Rushdie, they all knew that the war on books and
reading continues unabated.

Here in the United States, of course, authors do not worry about a price on
their heads, but their works continue to be targeted for banning by those
who find in books something to fear and dread.

As part of Banned Books
Week this week, the American Library Association reports that it
received 595 reports of calls for books to be removed or restricted in
public and school libraries during 1997. ALA president Ann K. Symons
estimates the actual number of challenges to books at four times that, at

Great works are not immune from these challenges. This summer, the Modern
Library released a list of the 20th Century’s 100 best novels. The library
association points out that of those 100 books, more than a third have been
the targets of attempts to have them banned from bookstores, libraries and

Classics the book-banners have attacked include Ulysses by James
Joyce, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Brave New
by Aldous Huxley, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Sons and
by D.H. Lawrence and The Grapes of Wrath by John

Today Ulysses is a top candidate for anyone’s list of the great
literary works of all time, yet shortly after it was published in the United
States in the early part of this century, it was burned and wasn’t published
here again until two decades later.

And though the days of book-burnings may be past, the banners still roam
bookstore aisles and library stacks in search of books to ban. They rip
books to shreds in parking lots. They force librarians to defend themselves
against lawsuits. They haul bookstore owners into court.

The fact that they object to works that may become great literature gives no
pause to the book-banners. They are not embarrassed that they have put on
the latest list of most frequently challenged books the likes of I Know
Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou, It’s Perfectly Normal
by Robie Harris, the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine and such perennial
targets as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Steinbeck’s Of Mice
and Men.

Perhaps it is inevitable that there are so many would-be banners in a nation
that so values books and reading. The United States is the fastest-growing
market for books in the world. Each year, publishers offer us 50,000 new
book titles and we buy 1.5 billion books. Each week, 14% of American adults
visit a bookstore; 60% of all Americans pursue their reading interests at
our libraries. And there are a lot of libraries to meet the demand: 15,946,
including branches, across this country.

To most of us, this is great news: more opportunities to read. But to too
many others, it just means more books to ban. They believe they know best
what others should read or not read.

Who are the book-banners? They are your relatives, your friends and
neighbors, your colleagues at work, the person at the next desk, and,
sometimes, the person sitting in your chair. Would-be censors come from
every ideological persuasion and attack books for every imaginable reason.
They go after novels, textbooks, dictionaries, even the Bible.

More and more, what we can read is influenced by the sanctimonies of
sensitivity from the left, the self-righteousness of certainty from the
right, and the maunderings of the muddled in the middle. These diverse
constituencies are united in one goal: to challenge any and all expression
that does not fit their particular views of the world. So they call for
boycotts, or burning, or banning.

While book-banners insist they only want to protect the rest of us from
taint and temptation, they ignore the reality that to write or to read a
book is to focus on the best in all of us, while to ban one is to focus on
the worst.

Words are curious things. An arrangement of them in a book can offend,
provoke, comfort, or inspire, depending on what the reader brings to the
reading. Even more curious is the reader — or often non-reader —
who would label a book good or bad.

Words are innocent. They have no innate capacity for good or ill. They do
not deserve to be stained with the evil thought or deed that follows their
consumption. Even when words are beyond our grasp they are never beyond our

Words also are precious things. One should lift a book of words from the
shelf with awe and anticipation. Books are the witnesses to the human
struggle to distill meaning — that is to say goodness and worth —
from life and living. The life of thought, the spirit of reason resides
there — in books. They comfort. They excite. They move.

Lord Byron wrote: “Words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like
dew, upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions,

As we read books, we should marvel: Someone, somewhere, sometime had the
strength of spirit to overcome the uncertainties of the moment and to reach
beyond himself, to try to bridge the chasm between the known and unknown,
between that time and this time. In so doing, the writer committed an act of
sublime confidence, daring to speak to strangers unmet living in a time not

That exquisite act of will deserves our respect and our reverence.

That is why, perhaps, there are those among us who quake in the presence of
such generosity of spirit. They suffer a malady of the mind that leads them
to believe they can make a distinction between good speech and bad. To fail
to understand that even bad words can result in good thoughts and deeds is
worrisome, but to establish arbiters of thought in our midst is to send our
society down the road to an excruciating cultural madness.

We are what we put in words. We live through words. We die a little every
time a word falls prey to the arbitrary sensibilities of the censor.

As perverse, as sick as the arrangement of some words can be, we must rise
to their defense with as much passion and conviction as we would for the
words we hold most dear. Given the opportunity to face the evil described by
words, we have the chance to change it, to make good even more real, more
desirable, and more attainable.

As surely as misanthropic expression attracts the weakened mind and panics
the fearful mind, it quickens the civilized mind. It informs reason, fires
the spirit and focuses our resolve.

Even so, the unrepentant censors remain among us. We must put to them some
harsh questions:

  • Who are they to deprive the individual intellect for the community’s
  • Why do they quake and quiver in the dark, clinging like infants to the
    safe and familiar?
  • Who are they do challenge the First Amendment’s guarantee against such
    ignorance and arrogance?

In those 45 words, the framers of our traditions and principles said that
the majority would not dictate the speech, thought, or taste of the
individual. They said that the democratic ideal would never achieve its
magnificent promise unless all of us learn that fear and ignorance, not
words and books, are the real evil.

What a tragedy to yearn for a darker time when we cowered like brutes in our
caves, snorting and stamping in fear as we watched words and ideas dance
outside in the sunlight.

We cannot allow ourselves to take the torch to books, literally or
figuratively. It is perfidy to embrace the darkness of ignorance and shun
the light of learning.

“Books are the carriers of civilization,” reminds historian and author
Barbara Tuchman. “Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science
crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.”

Every book, regardless of its content, has something to offer. As civilized
beings, we should have something to offer in return — that is, besides
the boycott, the burning, or the banning.