Celebrating the right to read

Monday, September 25, 2006

“Oh, we got trouble, my friends, right here in River City,” croons Meredith Willson’s charismatic Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” With his talk of pool halls and cigarettes, Hill conjures up images of secular evils that will soon corrupt the minds of Iowa youth. The frenzied townspeople begin to suspect the public library as another source of this corruption, spotlighting works by Balzac, Chaucer, and Rabelais as “dirty books.”

While Willson’s song-and-dance routines gloss over the tempestuous history of author censorship in favor of a musical that ends with “happily ever after,” Chaucer and his successors still sometimes find themselves caught in a cycle of suppression that plagues our library system today. To honor those works that have been challenged, questioned, burned or banned, the American Library Association is celebrating its 25th Annual Banned Books Week Sept. 23-30.

According to the ALA, 405 book challenges were reported in 2005. The ALA defines a challenge as “a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” According to the Associated Press, 405 is the lowest number of challenges on record. Since the first Banned Books Week in 1982, the number of challenges has dropped by more than half. According to the AP, Judith Krug, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, cites two possible reasons for the decrease: Librarians are better equipped to mobilize public support on behalf of a challenged book, and potential censors have shifted their focus more to the Internet.

The 10 most frequently challenged books of 2005 according to the ALA:

  1. It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, by Robie H. Harris, for homosexuality, nudity, sex education, religious viewpoint, abortion and being unsuited to age group.

  2. Forever, by Judy Blume, for sexual content and offensive language.

  3. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, for sexual content, offensive language and being unsuited to age group.

  4. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, for sexual content and offensive language.

  5. Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher, for racism and offensive language.

  6. Detour for Emmy, by Marilyn Reynolds, for sexual content.

  7. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones, for sexual content and being unsuited to age group.

  8. Captain Underpants series, by Dav Pilkey, for anti-family content, being unsuited to age group and violence.

  9. Crazy Lady! by Jane Leslie Conly, for offensive language.

  10. It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families, by Robie H. Harris, for sexual content.

These nine authors represent a rich heritage of controversial literature as they join the company of Confucius, Rousseau, Homer, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Twain and many others. Some, like Blume (Forever) and Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye) are not strangers to controversy. First published in 1951, Salinger’s classic has been debated for decades. Blume has five books on the ALA’s list of The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books (Forever, Blubber, Deenie, Tiger Eyes, and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret).

This year, children’s author Robie H. Harris has two books on the list: It’s Perfectly Normal was the most challenged book of 2005, and It’s So Amazing! earned the 10th spot. Though It’s Perfectly Normal has garnered praise from the ALA, Booklist, Child Magazine, The New York Times, Planned Parenthood and Publishers’ Weekly, it frequently is a target of criticism. A fully illustrated guide for preteens and teenagers, the book explains the sexual development of young people. Controversy arises from its open discussion of homosexuality and abortion, as well as its detailed pictures of human anatomy and sexual intercourse.

In August 2002, residents of Montgomery County, Texas, wanted the book, along with It’s So Amazing!, banned from their public library system. Montgomery County Library Director Jerilynn Adams Williams fought back, taking three months to educate the community about the process of challenging books as well as defending Harris’s books. Eventually, both books were restored to the library’s shelves. Williams went on to win the 2003 PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award for her efforts.

Though the ALA has only celebrated Banned Books Week for the past quarter-century, this form of censorship can be traced back to antiquity. The United States has its own rich history of banning books, a practice that gained momentum through the Comstock Law of 1873. Also known as the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act, it prohibited the distribution of obscene books, pamphlets and pictures by the U.S. Postal Service. This law affected many works, notably Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

Since 1873, critics have targeted hundreds of books written by Nobel laureates and philosophers, religious leaders and playwrights, geniuses and revolutionaries. As we celebrate the 25th Annual Banned Books Week, we should pause and reflect on the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who declared:

“Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book … . [W]e have got to fight it with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they’re accessible to others is unquestioned, or it’s not America.”

Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.

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