You may not know this (truthfully, I didn’t until I did some research on this topic), but last week was Banned Books Week. Ironically, you may have heard that this was also the week when a very popular book was banned by a California school district. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s tragic young adult romance novel about teens dying of cancer, was banned from middle schools in Riverside.
This is, of course, only the most recent and most public example of a book ban. The American Library Association keeps a list of what they call “Frequently Challenged Books”; the implication being that book bans – successful or attempted – are a regular enough occurrence that there is a substantial catalog of them. A quick glance at the top 100 banned/challenged books from 2000-2009 reveals a surprising array of blockbuster hits, literary classics, and critical darlings.
Given that so many people seem to want to ban so many books, you’d think there must be some kind of slightly reasonable justification for the practice. Sure, there are always reasons given for particular bans – inevitably there is some kind of offensive material or subject matter in the book – but I’ve never seen a justification for book banning as a concept. I think the reason for this is simple: book banning is stupid and unjustifiable in all cases. There is not, nor has there ever been, a sensible excuse for banning a book.
Let’s look at the thought process that went into banning The Fault in Our Stars, as a case in point. The following quote is from the article I linked to above.
Arlington principal and committee member Betsy Schmechel questioned whether students could handle reading about terminally ill teens.
“The thing that kept hitting me like a tidal wave was these kids dealing with their own mortality, and how difficult that might be for an 11-year-old or 12-year-old reading this book,” she said, later adding she thinks the review process worked. “If you have a process in place like this, then you have a way for anyone to be heard.”
Right here, we can see a proposed justification for banning this particular book, and a bonus argument for the book banning process itself. In the case of Fault, the committee (whose role is apparently to decide which books to ban) thinks that kids dealing with their own mortality is a “difficult” subject for a middle-school student to read about.
I will say this up front, unequivocally: Principal Schmechel is right about the book. Dealing with mortality is difficult for a mature adult, let alone a kid, and a book about a dying teenager is not going to be a light read. But that’s the point! A book like The Fault in Our Stars is supposed to be challenging. It’s supposed to make you think about death, and consider your own ideas about what it means to die young. If an 11-year-old reads this book and feels unnerving, complicated things about mortality, John Green has succeeded. More importantly, the 11-year-old has new knowledge about dying young, and new thoughts, feelings and reactions to all this new knowledge. That’s learning. That’s growth.
Now you might be thinking, understandably, that if you have/had an 11-year-old kid you wouldn’t be too thrilled about them reading certain books. You might not be too keen on seeing The Anarchist Cookbook or Mein Kampf in your kids’ backpack. You might tell your child never to read certain books because you don’t want them to get any bad ideas. Nobody wants their kid to grow up to be the next Ted Kaczynski, and if you can keep anything out of their hands that prevents that from happening, you should. The thing is, banning a book won’t help with that. If anything, it will probably make the situation worse.
Take a moment and try to think of anything, anything at all, that is less appealing to a teenager than that which is forbidden. Teens revel in defying adults, and each successive generation finds a new and exciting taboo to break. I guarantee you there are already kids in Riverside trying to find a copy of The Fault in Our Stars just to see what all the fuss is about.
Banning a book turns it into tempting forbidden fruit, but a ban also carries with it something far more insidious: the implication that the reader can’t be trusted.
A book is portable knowledge. Most books contain little more than what they promise on the cover, but some are many layers deep, housing knowledge within an idea within a theme within a story. But knowledge alone is inert. Knowledge requires a human being to interpret it, learn from it, and decide if, when, and how to act on it. And since every human being is different, and has lots of prior knowledge in addition to what’s in the book, everyone deals with new knowledge in a different way. Knowledge in and of itself is not destructive. There is nothing you can know that will hurt you, or cause you to hurt someone else, unless you as an individual decide to act on that knowledge in such a way.
Ask yourself this: if you sat down and read Mein Kampf right now, do you think it would turn you into a Nazi?
By banning a book, we are implying two things: 1) the book contains knowledge that can be used destructively, and 2) people can’t be trusted to have this knowledge. To be fair, some of the people who read Mein Kampf back when it was first published did become Nazis, but none of those people had the benefit of hindsight that we now have. If anything, a modern reader of Mein Kampf will see it as a cautionary tale, and a character study of an evil man. It is, without question, a valuable historical artifact. The material in the book isn’t dangerous in and of itself, especially not in 2014.
Which brings me back to the book that started all this. The Fault in Our Stars was banned from the Riverside middle schools on the grounds that “the subject matter involves teens dying of cancer who use crude language and have sex.” I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say that middle school kids are already cursing like sailors (I sure was at that age), and are either already having sex, or will be in a few short years (… well, I did curse a lot). As for dealing with mortality, some of these kids will, sadly, be in that position very soon. Most likely, it will be someone they love and care about who will die, but it might be them. Why wouldn’t we want them to benefit from the safe, inert knowledge in this book? Would we really prefer that they figure all of this out on their own, in real time?
Let’s call a spade a spade: the book was banned because the idea of kids experiencing these things made a few people queasy. And that’s the thing with book bans: they only ever benefit the banners, never the potential readers. Banning the book gives these parents a wee bit of comfort that their kids won’t have to bear the burden of this dangerous knowledge. It does absolutely nothing to the kids, other than to make them wonder why their parents don’t trust them to read a very popular book. A book ban hammers home the point that you, the reader, are weak and vulnerable and you need to be protected from these words. The idea that knowledge is dangerous is the antithesis of a free society.