Earlier this month, the Anchorage Daily News reported that as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin attempted — or looked into attempting or asked somebody about the possibility of looking into attempting — to remove “offensive” books from the shelves of Wasilla libraries. Blogs, wire services and the Obama campaign quickly seized the story with the sort of reckless abandon that isn’t all that conducive to factual accuracy, and before long, the whole thing was blown out of proportion and into another piece of political rhetoric. It’s the same fate most talk of book-banning is quickly consigned to these days.
We’re currently in the midst of Banned Books Week (Sept. 27-Oct. 4), seven days set aside by our national legislators to pat themselves on the back and talk about the value of the Constitution before they go back to defiling it. The problem with Banned Books Week is that it’s not much more than that. Sure, libraries, bookstores and museums will hold events and a few self-congratulatory liberals will turn out to give themselves pats on the back, as if listening to someone read from The Catcher in the Rye somehow means that we’re any closer to solving this problem.
We’re not. In fact, we’re a lot closer to putting a would-be book banner in the White House than we are to even beginning to hold any kind of constructive dialogue about what book banning really means, or should mean, to us as Americans. Contrary to what the Sarah Palins of this world would have us think, this country is built on freedom of expression and tolerance for the beliefs of others – no matter how offensive we may find those beliefs ourselves.
It’s one thing for parents to tell their children what is and isn’t OK to read. It’s another thing entirely for parents to tell other parents what’s OK for everyone’s kids to read. Many would-be banned books could serve to teach children, and adults for that matter, about whatever it is that makes them so controversial.
Rather than petitioning to have the Harry Potter series removed from library shelves, why don’t the religious conservatives it offends take advantage of the opportunity to teach their kids the difference between the collected works of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and those of J.K. Rowling?
Would-be banned books offer important opportunities to ask tough questions about what it means to be an American – what we’re doing right and perhaps most importantly, where we went wrong. All too often, however, the controversy they generate is quickly funneled into political cheap shots. Just ask Palin. (Not that she’s the only culprit. Liberals get a free ride on the book-banning train all too often, yet they can be just as fastidious about reading material that violates their core beliefs.)
It’s not that the folks “celebrating” Banned Books Week in more traditional ways don’t mean well. There’s nothing wrong, per se with the ACLU and Free Library inviting WXPN’s Gene Shay and company to hang out and share their favorite controversial passages. To be honest, it’s great that the Rosenbach Museum and Library will show banned book-themed artwork. Something’s better than nothing, and both those events are definitely something.
The problem is they’re also everything.
My point – and I promise, I do have one – is this: listening to some local celebrity read the dirty parts from Lady Chatterley’s Lover out loud amounts to little more than intellectual masturbation. So rather than participating in any of the officially-sanctioned, essentially-harmless events you’ll find in this column’s sidebar, why not do something that really matters this Banned Books Week?
Take a trip to your local library branch’s children’s section, and make sure it has a copy of And Tango Makes Three, the most frequently challenged book of 2007. If it doesn’t, donate a copy – they retail for around $15. Or why not check out a few dangerous books yourself?
Wooden Shoe Books, at 508 S. Fifth St., is an all-volunteer anarchist collective, and it’s a good place to start. In fact, why limit yourself to just one week? Celebrate banned books year-round by attempting to actually read your way through a copy of the American Library Association’s “Frequently Challenged Books” list. At the very least, you’ll get to see what all the fuss is about.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.