Noam Chomsky wrote: “If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.” And yet, we do try to silence contrary opinions; visions we find frightening.
Mostly, we do this with the best of intentions. We want to protect the young and the vulnerable from ideas that we think are wrong, or dangerous. As a counter to this very human urge, Mecklenburg County libraries will celebrate Banned Books Week Sept. 27-Oct. 4.
Books banned in various times and places include “The Canterbury Tales,” “Macbeth” “Moll Flanders,” “Origin of Species,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Silas Marner,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Catcher in The Rye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “The Color Purple” and “Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.”
Harry Potter high on hit lists
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In a way, I suppose we should be glad that people are still trying to ban books, since that means that people still do read them. And it is a measure of how effective “banning” is that J. K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series is high on past lists, although it doesn't show up this year. For the second year running, the Most Banned Book in America is a thin volume for toddlers that tells the true story of two male penguins who hatch and raise an abandoned chick: “And Tango Makes Three.”
But wizards and gay penguins are merely the bogey men du jour – recent, and temporary, controversies. If you look at past years' lists, a few books appear again and again, among them, two of the best books I have ever read: Mark Twain's “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Maya Angelou's “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
In a way, these books are mirror images of one another, presenting the vision of children raised on opposite sides of a racist culture.
In Huck Finn, we see the world as Huck saw it – that is Twain's genius. Huck is a product of his time and place. Slavery was just how things were, and the way Huck saw the slave Jim was the way his world saw Jim. A slave was an inferior, as much a possession, piece of property, as a horse or a cow. The Bible itself condoned slavery, and helping a slave escape was theft, a sin warranting eternity in Hell.
Huck's transformative decision
Huck can not defeat or escape his culture, but he can transcend it. In the most powerful scene in this, or any novel, Huck decides that he will risk that eternity in Hell rather than betray his friend. He starts to write to Jim's owner, but decides, instead: “All right, then, I'll GO to hell.” He tears up the letter.
Mark Twain later wrote that this novel was “…a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.”
Today we like to think that evil is obvious, and has always been obvious; that our ancestors thought as we do. Huck teaches us that good people, with the best intentions, can still be wrong, and can do evil without intending it. We have to trust our hearts.
Angelou's “Caged Bird” describes the Jim Crow world of a young girl growing up in Stamps, Ark. Some years ago, a group of Maryland parents petitioned to take the book off the 9th grade reading list because it portrayed whites as villains.
That view surprised me. For me, the book is a riveting portrait of life in the rural South at the time. I could smell the fields, see the dust from the roads, feel the wooden floors of the old country store under bare feet, taste the cheese from the wheels, hear the old men sitting on the porch chawin' and spittin'. She got it all right.
What struck me most about the parents' complaint was that there are no white characters in the book. Yes, whites drift by, here and there, as pieces of the landscape, but they do not interact with young Maya in any real way. They are not real people to her. If Angelou had attempted to portray her world any differently, it would not have been true.
Great works of literature let you see the world through different eyes. Look through the eyes of Huck Finn, of Maya Angelou. Read scary books, and find real human beings.
Celebrate our freedom to read
You can join the good Librarians of Charlotte at several celebrations of the freedom to read.
The aptly named Freedom Library, off Freedom Drive, will host a “Let Freedom Ring” Open Mic Monday, Sept. 29, at 3 p.m. Read an excerpt from a book that was challenged or banned, or read something of your own dealing with “Free People Read Freely.”
The Matthews library will host an “I'm With the Banned” discussion group, complete with snacks, at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 29. Both events are targeted for teens.
John Aikin wrote, “To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor's prohibited list.”
See www.ala.org/ala/oif/ bannedbooksweek/challenged banned/frequentlychallenged books.cfm#tmfcbo2007 for this year's edition.