Eleventh Stack brings Banned Books Week 2015 to a close with a guest post from Carl, who works at our West End location. We hope you enjoy his philosophical ruminations about censorship and intellectual freedom. Our regularly-scheduled monthly recap will return next week.
I’ve never been entirely clear as to why a book is banned. Particularly in this country, where the political culture is based on rebellion and allotments of freedom, it seems paradoxical. The champions of liberty gag an individual’s artistic expression while withholding that material from the community. The process is autocratic and reeks of distrust. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of life, banning a book assumes life to be a simple, black and white process. In other words, it is a denial of truth.
Literature and stories challenge readers to reexamine themselves while exploring and developing points of view previously unknown. Even the most nefarious text offers a glimpse into new ways of being and knowing for a reader. But exposure does not necessarily entail acceptance. A reader must question the work. The human intellect then serves as our bulwark against stupid. I’ve read plenty of text that I found banal and dry, oh such a bore! I’ve read text that is morally reprehensible, at least to my Catholic upbringing. Each time I’ve come away a better person. I’ve learned how to develop arguments against what I find disagreeable. Rather than throwing a tantrum and begging for salvation, I’ve developed my soul, or my intrinsic nature – those qualities that make me who I am, how I learn and choose to be.
Throughout history, publications challenging the status quo and/or “normal” ideas of propriety have been burned, desecrated or otherwise removed from view by figures of authority. Whether this is due to a ruler wanting a fresh intellectual start for the culture, as it happened in Qin China c. 200 B.C.; or because the publication was deemed a threat to society, much the way certain parents freaked out over imaginative representations of witchcraft in Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone like it was 1692; such reactions, when successful, do indelible harm to intellectual freedom, creativity and individuality.
Not to mention the sad cases of books being lost in a major disaster or to the slow ravages of time. Though items like those were not banned in any official sense, their destruction bans enlightenment. Legends of rivers running black with ink dot history. Whether these stories report full on destruction of a library, or represent a general brain-drain, the moral stays the same – the removal and/or destruction of books (and art work generally) forces thinkers to reinvent the wheel and desolates the cultural landscape.
There is no such thing as a bad book. Certainly it could be written poorly, but in such a case there is something to be learned from the author – how not to write. But what of the ravings of a racist lunatic as seen in Mein Kampf? What can be gained from that exposure? I wouldn’t know. I haven’t read it. But I’m happy that I have the choice to do so. Literature is a window to historical truth. It allows us to climb into the minds of persons no longer alive, but who, for better or worse, impacted our world. As much as we may want to vaporize aspects or persons from the historic record, doing so obscures truth and hampers humanity’s ability to grapple with change in a knowledgeable, peaceful and complex way.