Reading was my first love and I will always have the strongest feelings toward it. If asked to give up reading or knitting, I would bid farewell to knitting. Being that it is Banned Books Week, I wanted to share a little bit about the love of my life and what it has meant to me.
I was the first in my class to be allowed in the “chapter books” section of my elementary school’s library and it was there that I became what I am today: a serial re-reader. I worked my way through the school’s antique collection of Nancy Drew novels and when I was done, I started at the beginning again. I used Mr. Hysjulien’s well-intentioned Newbery and Caldecott Medal list bookmarks to fly through mystery after mystery with Nancy, Bess, and George. Junior Great Books gave me exposure to some incredible authors in fascinating bites between trips to River Heights. Ms. Gruber’s reading class in third grade really pushed me to branch out. Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins, all of those books from Mr. Hysjulien’s bookmarks came alive in my hands. I started reading anything I could get my mitts on and nobody could stop me. The reading light got hot under my blankets at night and I learned my multiplication tables from Mrs. Gordon between furtively read sentences. A friend and I passed Sandman back and forth under our desks during AP English in 11th grade and Ms. Johnson didn’t stop us–she did, however, make a point of prompting us when it looked like we weren’t paying sufficient attention to discussion.
Every book was a new experience–a trip to a different land, an encounter with monsters, a fall into love, the loss of a friend, a psychological break, a new worldview. The last page was simultaneously a celebration and a mourning. I will still often read more than one book at a time so that my adventures are never really over. And yes, I still revisit books that I love. I start every year with Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, read for the first time in high school creative writing with Ms. Burtness. My copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is both autographed (!!!) and soaked in highlighter, color coded for how the particular passage or quote struck me (thanks, Ms. Mork). I have discovered that I can read paperback books while knitting if I’m sitting cross-legged on my bed or the floor, with one foot holding my book open. Let me tell you, using my Nook may be the easier route but not all of my favorites are on the thing.
Over this recent past decade, 5,099* challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom.
- 1,577 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
- 1,291 challenges due to “offensive language”;
- 989 challenges due to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”;
- 619 challenged due to “violence”‘ and
- 361 challenges due to “homosexuality.”
1,639 of these challenges were in school libraries; 1,811 were in classrooms; 1,217 took place in public libraries. There were 114 challenges to materials used in college classes; and 30 to academic libraries. There are isolated cases of challenges to library materials made available in or by prisons, special libraries, community groups, and students. The vast majority of challenges were initiated by parents (2,535), with patrons and administrators to follow (516 and 489 respectively).
So, Banned Books Week and censorship in general. The fact that other people would presume to tell me what I can and cannot read and to in fact go so far as to make sure that those books are completely unavailable to me–it hurts, deep in the pit of my stomach. The only thing that hurts worse is knowing that while I have a voice and dammit I will use it, there are others who
may not even know to fight back. There are books that have changed my life and there are books that have saved my life and you know what? They weren’t “safe” books or “friendly” books. They are books that pushed my boundaries and forced me to ask myself difficult questions. What does it mean to be a good person? Where does our inherent value come from and how is it measured? How should it be measured? Good books are like Elroy Berdahl in The Things They Carried: they bring us up against the realities, take us to the edge and then stand a vigil over us as we choose lives for ourselves.
Books are meant to challenge what you know about your world. They should make you uncomfortable, make you ask questions, make you hurt and laugh and love and rage. They provide an escape as much as they provide guidance and it is our decision what role they play. Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can’t read. Nobody has the right to take a book out of your hands and you should fight like hell to preserve your ability to choose. You never know which book will change your life.