‘Those who, at first, burn books, will, in the end, burn men.’
This past seven days has seen Banned Books Week in the United States. And, no, it’s not a week when books are banned all over the country. Instead, it’s an event which celebrates books, the ideas expressed within them and the freedom to read them, something that is not always the case despite the fact that all this is supposed to be enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
I did find it a bit strange when I heard about it. I know there have been instances of books being banned in Britain, but that seems to be more of an historical thing rather than a modern and ongoing problem.
The idea of books being banned, or of groups or individuals ‘challenging’ books that are being stocked in public libraries or taught in schools, seems to feed into a stereotypical idea that we sometimes have of Americans as religious fundamentalists with a narrow-minded and insular view of the world.
Yet, there are many, many more people in the United States who cherish their freedoms – of speech, access to information and ideas, and of expression in the written word – and they are engaged in a constant battle with an intolerant but aggressive minority who would, for example, like to see the Harry Potter books banned from schools and libraries. ‘Ridikkularus Extremis!’ as the young wizard might say.
Apparently, the ten most common reasons for books being challenged/banned in the United States over the past 20 years are: Sexually Explicit; Offensive Language; Violence; Unsuited to Age Group; Occult; Homosexuality; Religious Viewpoint; Nudity; Racism; Drugs.
When I read that list, the first book that sprung to my mind was Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. It falls into at least six of those categories. Quite apart from the fact it’s a wonderfully entertaining read, and the most shoplifted book of the 1990s in Scotland, apparently, it is also one of the most important books published in this country in recent years, and the idea of anyone trying to ban it is just plain crazy.
Banned Books Week in America is both a celebration of books and an opportunity to remind all right-minded people to be vigilant about those who would censor what we can read or write, or what our children can read. The week is coming to an end – it’s been running from September 24 to October 1 – and we should all give our support to writers, librarians, parents and teachers throughout the United States who are bravely standing up to censorship.
And while we rightly cherish our freedoms in this country – I happen to think that the Harry Potter books are wonderful and were one of the main things in encouraging an enduring love of books and reading in my daughter – we should not be complacent. There are plenty of people in our country who, given the opportunity or right circumstances, would be only too happy to dictate to us in a similar way.
We should remember, too, that the desire to ban books, or worse, is not a preserve of the right-wing or the religious fanatics. People on the other end of the political spectrum have been just as guilty in this regard, and people with extreme, rigid and unbending views always target books and writers for expressing different views.
I used the quote at the top of this blog in another post recently, but I thought it was worth using again. Heinrich Heine was a German writer whose words from the first half of the nineteenth century were a portent of the horrors in Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s. It remains a chilling warning even now.
If there is one caveat in all this, it is the question of whether, in defence of free speech and freedom of expression, we allow everything and anything to be said or printed. Obviously, the answer is no and we have various laws in this country which deal with things that are libellous, racist, obscene or actively incite people to violence.
As parents, one of our responsibilities should be to ensure that what our children read is age-appropriate, in much the same way that you would monitor what they’re looking at on the Internet. Trainspotting, for example, is a book that pupils can choose as their personal study book at Higher level (age 15-16) in Scottish schools, but you wouldn’t let a seven-year-old read it.
However, if like me, you have a teenage son who doesn’t read books – not even ones that I’ve written – then you don’t have any problem at all!
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