The concept of a banned book has always perplexed me. Most of my history as a reader includes some legendary volumes, including several frequently- and formerly-banned books. I understand the idea of immoral or dangerous material, but what I don’t understand is what the real trouble is with banned books. Fear and insecurity of parents and educators seem to factor into the motivation for barring books from schools, but the removal of a book from a school, to the right student, would have the same result as making something illegal: It only makes the mind crave it more.
Oscar Wilde once suggested that “immoral” books “show the world its own shame.” Such is a situation that happened two years ago with a graphic novel taught within the Chicago Public Schools system. I have not read Persepolis, though I’m familiar with its reputation. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s about a teenage girl coming of age in 1979 Iran, following the revolution. What I found offensive about the situation was not that the schools decided not to trust the intelligence of its student body to treat the book as an explication of the culture as it was during a difficult time. What bothers me the most is that CPS felt the need to lie about the entire situation and pretend that there was no call for its removal when the link above proves otherwise.
Banning books is one of our culture’s ways of hiding shameful and difficult truths about the world, about human nature, and about the danger of ideas. “Ideas are bulletproof” says a famous anti-fascism graphic novel (V for Vendetta), and books are notorious carriers of these indestructible weapons. We use ideas to create stories that laugh at war (Slaughterhouse-Five), expose dangerous industry (The Jungle) and hateful thoughts (Invisible Man), look deeply into the dangers of excess and moral depravity (The Great Gatsby), and demonstrate the dangers of government control (1984).
One of the greatest banned books of all time was banned because of its use of violence to make a point. It was a science fiction story about a dystopian future where Aldous Huxley’s and Neil Postman’s warnings of a technology-driven future where the technology we love had all but taken control of us, had come to fruition. Books were banned and anyone caught with them was arrested and their books became inferno fodder for firemen who set fires instead of extinguishing them. Television had become the only real method of entertainment. People didn’t really have conversations anymore. (Does this sound familiar?)
Ray Bradbury’s classic warning of anti-intellectualism, Fahrenheit-451. It may be the most ironic banning in history: A banned book about a future where people no longer read books.
Bradbury once said, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” I find it sad that instead of facing our own shame and allowing our youth to learn about our failures and flaws, we’d rather hide them in the name of censorship and safety which only thinly veils our embarrassment and shame. The world is messy enough. We don’t need more people running about with lit matches, trying to hide the mistakes of our history for fear that someone may not be able to handle or like a few words or a few images in a book that teaches a valuable truth. Our practice of banning books has to stop.