We the people of the United States of America have proclaimed for centuries that God has given us and the rest of humanity certain unalienable rights, rights that our forefathers outlined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and Bill of Rights. These rights include freedom of speech and press, but I believe that the freedom to read is an unspoken inclusion, one that our forefathers didn’t think to include because it seemed obvious. That’s my theory, anyway. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, it seems like a no-brainer that the freedom to read anything and everything, no matter who you are or where you live, is a freedom to be appreciated and protected. And yet, those who came to the New World in search of freedom started banning books before we were even a nation of our own.
The first book banned on American soil was Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, which was published in 1637 and banned soon thereafter. But books had been banned for centuries beforehand in Europe, so this was par for the course. However, as we established ourself as a free nation, it seems as though a nation of free forward-thinkers would do away with the idea of censorship, right? Alas, it was not to be. Hundreds if not thousands of books have been banned or challenged in our nation’s history, with more being added to the list every year. Yes, book banning is still a thing in America in 2018, which is mind-boggling to me.
Books important to our history as a nation have been banned. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was outlawed in the South during the American Civil War. Other classic American novels, including (but definitely not limited to) The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, Gone with the Wind, The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, Invisible Man, Fahrenheit 451, and To Kill a Mockingbird have all been banned or challenged at some point. Love them or hate them, these books all helped to shape our identity as a nation and thus should be treasured, not silenced.
Dr. Seuss has been removed from libraries, as has Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling and Judy Blume. Staples of childhood have been kept away from students by school boards and overprotective parents. Guiding your child away from certain reading materials until they’re mature enough for the content is understandable, but flat out refusing them access to any books that disagree with your worldview in even the smallest of ways is another. How can we raise a society of free thinkers sympathetic to the plights of those who are different from themselves if we refuse to offer them access to books that can provide the insights necessary to develop into such a person? Even worse, we as a bookish community have started taking it upon ourselves to “warn readers away” from books that are “problematic” in our opinions. There are those who are actively seeking to have a book removed from shelves and taken out of print because they disagree with something within its pages. And we should be ashamed.
Dr. Seuss taught me to read. James and the Giant Peach helped me develop an imagination without limits. Shel Silverstein delighted me with his wacky poetry. Harry Potter introduced me to the fantasy genre and will be my first love for ALWAYS. A Wrinkle in Time introduced me to Meg and Charles Wallace and science fiction with heart. The Giver made me think deeply and appreciate color for the first time in my ten years of life. Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web were the first books that ever made me cry, and both introduced me to the power of friendship before I really developed any meaningful friendships of my own. Gone with the Wind was my first giant grown-up novel, and I loved the Southernness of it. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank made me incredibly grateful for the time and place in which I live. The Great Gatsby introduced me to the Roaring Twenties in a way that was vibrant and unforgettable. Flowers for Algernon made me love words and appreciate my literacy more than any book before or since. Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale all terrified me and left me watching the society I live in more closely. These are just a few of the books that impacted my life in some way, and every single one of them has been banned at some point in time.
We all have a right to read, and we should never let the close-mindedness of others infringe upon the right. We also have a right to not read the things that we disagree with, but hopefully we can remember that everyone is entitled to their own opinions. Banned Books Week was founded in 1982 to remind people of these rights, and even though people continue to ban books from schools and remove them from public libraries, I think that more attention has been given to the issue because of Banned Books Week and that there are more people in our society with their eyes opened to the problem. So pick up a banned book in protest. Rebel. It’s what our nation was founded on, even if we often forget. Think for yourself, and most of all, never stop reading.
The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. – Ray Bradbury
I originally wrote this post in 2017, but I feel like it’s just as relevant today as it was last year. While this is written from the perspective of an American, I know that this is a problem for readers worldwide, and it’s something that we need to abolish by banding together. For more information on Banned Books Week, you can go to ALA’s site on the subject here.