Banned books: So what?
READ BANNED BOOKS the banner at Powell’s Bookstore’s website cries. Apparently this is Banned Books week in the U.S. Browsing through the titles, I was surprised how few of them I’d read: sorry, Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, All the Pretty Horses, and To Kill A Mockingbird have never imprinted themselves on my retina, and I couldn’t get through The Old Man and The Sea, Brave New World or Harry Potter. So sue me.
I was also surprised how uncompelling I found much on this list. I decided, after some thought, that reading banned books, at least for the fact of them being banned books, is a bad idea.
Why? Well, the whole appeal to me seems somewhat along the lines of the “bad kids” in school trying to get you to cut class and go outside into the courtyard and smoke cigarettes instead. It seems to say, “Read banned books because someone thought or thinks this is bad behavior. Be cool. Be the rebel. That’s the reason to do it.”
Not that for a moment the concept of banning books doesn’t bother me. Doesn’t anger me. But a banned book does not equate to a good book, not necessarily. While some of the titles listed on their page are great, some are, I think, mediocre, and a few are laughable. There are better books I could spend my limited time on earth with, so many.
And sometimes the reasons certain books were banned are silly. Or no longer relevant. The Potter books ruffled feathers because in the eyes of some they deal with “black magic,” aka, Satanism. Well, I think that’s a stupid reason to blackball a book—but it’s also a stupid reason to read one. There will always be those who find Satan lurking everywhere. While that’s unfortunate, I don’t see what it has to do with reading a banned book. Similarly I think The Old Man and The Sea is flat and pretentious—I don’t care if it won a Pulitzer and was influential in getting Papa his Nobel. No one should have moved to ban it, but there’s better Hemingway, banned or not.
Many of the other works listed have been banned for well-known reasons—bigotry, political or other intolerance. This is regretful and unacceptable, but I see no reason to feel compelled to read them because of it. I don’t need Ralph Ellison or Harper Lee to tell me racism is wrong, and America’s past in this regard is both shameful and regretful. Sadly, the people who most need to learn history will probably never make the effort, but as Francine Prose asks, what’s the point of reading a book of which the effect on you is pre-determined? And the people who need to read these books likely never will.
Other novels were banned for reasons that are now silly—they dealt too openly with sexuality or perhaps contained many curse words. These may have been hot-button issues at the time the novels hit the shelves. They may have infuriated prude librarians or some local PTA. But the reason for their shock is long gone. Once upon a time Elvis shaking his pelvis on TV upset the nation too, but now it’s laughably quaint.
And some titles on the list are just, well, a little ludicrous. I don’t want to read Fifty Shades of Grey or The Hunger Games and don’t feel I’ll miss out by giving them a big pass. I have nothing against you if you do, but with so much I’ve yet to crack by Updike, Doctorow, Rushdie, Kazantzakis, Kundera, Chekhov, Flaubert, Woolf, Saramago, (Richard) Yates, (Richard) Ford, and countless others, I’m not even slightly interested, banned or not.
Of course, I’m probably taking all this a bit too literally. A “banned books week” is—let’s face it—probably the work, at least in part, of marketers who want to drag people’s heads out of their smartphones. And I think that is a great idea. Read the books, if you do, because you want to. But don’t feel bad if you haven’t read a lot of these titles, or would rather read something else. Don’t think for a minute the “banned” book is necessarily more worthy. No book should be banned, but not all banned books are equal. Having said that, there are a few titles on the Powell’s page I’ve long been dying to check out. I’ll add them to my list…but not because they were banned.