Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Banned Books Week

As I mentioned yesterday, it's Banned Books Week. It's a time to remember the books that have been challenged, censored, burned or otherwise restricted from the public view. It's also a time to celebrate intellectual freedom in general, and to ruminate on what a precious and sometimes difficult thing that is.

I thought David Ulin's piece in yesterday's Los Angeles Times was very well-put. As he says:

Yet it's foolish, self-defeating even, to pretend that books are innocuous, that we don't need to concern ourselves with what they say. If that's the case, then it doesn't really matter if we ban them, because we have already stripped them of their power.

Books do change things: Just think of "Common Sense," which lighted the fuse of the American Revolution, or "Mein Kampf," which laid out the blueprint for Hitler's Germany.

These are very different books -- one a work of hope and human decency, the other as venal a piece of writing as I've ever read -- but what they have in common is a kind of historical imperative, the sense that, at the right place and time, a book can be a galvanizing factor, for good or ill.

"Mein Kampf" is a title you don't hear a lot during Banned Books Week; the focus is more on classics such as "Song of Solomon" or "The Catcher in the Rye" that have been challenged in libraries and schools.

As I pass our Banned Books display every day at work, I find myself thinking about disagreement -- in some cases with the ideas in the book, in others with the people who want to ban them. This is the season for disagreement. We've already had one presidential debate and this week will feature the vice presidential candidates in active verbal dispute. I think this is what we ought to be celebrating during banned books week -- the right to disagree, and the difficult, often begrudging acceptance that those we disagree with deserve a platform as well.

Freedom of ideas means just that and not, conversely, freedom from ideas. I can understand the impulse to keep uncomfortable, dangerous ideas away, so that their contagion can't spread. I can also see that an idea misunderstood can be a dangerous thing. But to never hear the other side, to blot it out, is a dangerous thing as well. So maybe when you decide to read 1984 or The Turner Diaries or A Clockwork Orange or Mein Kampf or a book about gay animals getting married, when you read an author you disagree with (Ann Coulter, Al Franken, whomever) what you're supporting is the right to hear all sides, to disagree - vehemently, in some cases - but to allow the idea its place.

Reading only the books, magazines, and newspapers you agree with is an excellent way to calcify your thinking and turn into the kind of boring demagogue that nobody wants to be seated next to at a dinner party. Don't be this person. Rather than challenging a book, read something genuinely challenging, if only to confirm that it's wrong. How else can we really argue against something unless we fully understand it? Otherwise, Ulin is right, and Banned Books Week is merely a "toothless, feel-good spectacle that makes us less likely to consider the actual ramifications of free expression."



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