Friday, 30 September 2016

Banned Books

For my birthday in June, Mr Squidge bought me a bracelet of enamelled metal plates of book covers. Just like this one:

(You can buy something similar from the Literary Gift Company)

One of the plates says 'I read banned books'. Well, that couldn't be right I thought - Alice in Wonderland? Huckleberry Finn? I knew Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned because of the S-E-X across the class divide years ago, but that was years ago.

I decided that, if these books were banned - or had been banned at some point - I would attempt to read them all; work my way round my bracelet and read things I'd never read before.

The first I tackled was The Color Purple. Banned on various grounds, including racism, inappropriate language, violence and physical abuse. You could also add rape, promiscuity, drugs... Definitely not what I'd call a light read. Yet I devoured it in one sitting, and it's a book that will stay with me for life.

I decided to do a bit of digging into banned books, and found that, purely by coincidence, I had read The Color Purple during Banned Books Week, a time when the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association seeks to celebrate the freedom to read and draws attention to the harm caused by censorship of reading materials. There's a wealth of information on their website if, like me, you want to know more.

It made me wonder how I feel about censorship of books. 

We all want to protect - particularly our children - from inappropriate content. Isn't reading a banned book a bit like letting them loose on an unprotected internet? 

I don't think so. Perhaps that's because of my own view on books; when the Squidgelings were younger and their reading ability outstripped the 'suitable' books available for their age group, I let them have free choice. But - I always tried to read the same books as them so I had an idea of what they contained. Can't say I enjoyed reading spy stories with lots of violence, but at least I was prepared when the kids told me how many people died and in how many yukky ways. It meant we could talk about it - together.

There's a quote I love:

"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." – Neil Gaiman

Could we apply the same kind of approach to reading material which challenges our view of the world? The books that deal with social issues such as racism, homelessness, sexuality, mental issues? Not that these are necessarily to be seen as 'dragons' to be beaten...but we at least become aware of their existence as things that might be different to our individual norm. And as a result we broaden our thinking, become - one hopes - more tolerant of differences and issues in our world. 

Instead, it seems that some people want to 'protect' our children and offer them a sanitised view of the world in which they live. One that does not include witches (Yup - Harry Potter has been banned quite a lot!) or topless sunbathers (a teeny tiny picture in a Where's Wally book) or animals that act like humans (Alice in Wonderland). If we narrow the reading experience, will that not raise narrow thinkers?

I began to wonder whether the addition of ages to children's books by publishers is a form of much subtler censorship - if you're not THIS old, you can't read THIS book. Or when in schools the system sometimes limits the child's reading material to a particular 'band' because they do not have the skills to read the stories they choose for themselves. Whilst I agree there is much to be said for encouraging children to read what they are capable of - which requires time and adult supervision to work properly - what's wrong with allowing a child to take a story that is beyond their capability so that they can share it or listen to it thanks to a more able reader at home?

Is there ever a time when reading material should be banned? I honestly don't know. My preferred approach would be to allow free choice - but to inform, so that the choices made are by the reader, not by those who seek to wield power over people's minds and thoughts and view of the world. 

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