I have had a very difficult time writing this post. It originally started with what I read for Banned Books Week 2013, bogged down in the convoluted intricacies of the controversy over Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis being stripped from the Chicago Public School’s curriculum, and melted into emotional, nonsensical jibberish about Thomas Jefferson and not being afraid. Yeah, you didn’t want to read that.
I think I’ve had such a hard time writing about banning books because I don’t know what else to say other than don’t do it. It’s stupid, and it leads to more stupidity. I don’t understand the fear that someone must feel to think that banning or destroying a book will destroy its content and ideas. I recently read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the first time (yes, for Banned Books Week 2013), and I love the gorgeous moment at the end when Granger tells Montag about how though the books themselves are gone, the words and ideas of the books are still in each of their heads and hearts. Each man in the group is a keeper of a book or two, and after the war, they will give rebirth to these lost books. Lost but not gone.
Fear is at the root of book banning. Fear of losing, fear of change and progress, fear of difference. Banning books does not prevent any of these things from happening, though. What banning books does do is say to those who are no longer allowed to read particular books, “You can’t be trusted to have the right opinion about this. You are not mature enough or reasonable enough to understand the right way.” How cowardly. How pitiful. How weak. Getting rid of the books only gets rid of the physical books. It does not get rid of the ideas in them. It simply indicates small-mindedness and ignorance. There are always enough people reading these verboten books to keep the discussion of the ideas alive. And we need the exchanging of ideas and opinions to keep progressing as a country. Progressing not regressing.
So stop being afraid. Engage in discourse about new ideas. It’s ok to disagree with someone. It’s ok to be uncomfortable as long as you really figure out why you are uncomfortable and what you can learn. Don’t call, cry, beg, and scream for the banning of books. It does nothing to quash the flow of ideas. Besides, daring to be progressive and different is what created our country in the first place. Stop banning books. Ban Justin Bieber instead.
In brief, a short synopsis of the two banned books I read this week, the reasons for their banning, and my thoughts to the books themselves.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s seminal novel tracing fireman Guy Montag’s evolution from unquestioning follower to independent thinker and fugitive is just as striking, chilling, and relevant today as it was when it was published in 1953. Perhaps an influence on today’s wildly popular dystopian future young adult novels, it describes a world in which reading is illegal and the government requires people to be mindlessly happy. Bradbury wrote the work in response to his growing concerns over censorship during the McCarthy era. In 1967, the book’s publisher, Ballantine Books, began expurgating “offensive” language and situations from the book. From 1973 to 1979, Ballantine published only the bowdlerized version until Bradbury himself discovered the censorship and demanded that they publish only his original, which was reinstated in 1980. Since then, the book has occasionally been protested on a local or state level, but the protesting and censoring has never been successful. I chose this novel because somehow I had made it through school without reading it, and Michel was aghast at that fact. So I picked up his worn copy and finished it in about 24 hours. It is an incredibly easy, potent read that sticks with you well after you have put it back on the shelf. Bradbury issued a dire warning in 1953 that we should still heed today. The world he creates is not that implausible. And his language is spectacular: clear, specific, evocative. Highly recommended. No, not just recommended. This book should be a required part of every single person’s reading education, whether it is read in school or on one’s own time. It is that important.
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi’s Persepolis made headlines with its publication of the first volume in 2000. The French-language graphic novel, originally published in four volumes, detailed Satrapi’s childhood and education in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq. Now translated into several languages, Satrapi’s bildungsroman memoire is funny, honest, graphic, shocking, and ultimately successful at humanizing a highly complex, violent, and mysterious country that for many Americans is hidden behind a veil. I chose this book because of my recent move to Chicago and the Chicago Public School’s decision to ban the book from classrooms and libraries, despite the book’s inclusion in the Common Core educational standards. As the situation evolved, CPS has backpedaled, saying the book is not banned from CPS libraries, only in 7th grade classrooms, as it has been deemed unacceptable and inappropriate for 7th graders. It is acceptable in junior and senior English classrooms, and its presence in 8th, 9th, and 10th grade classrooms is being evaluated. After reading Persepolis, I feel that CPS has handled this situation extremely poorly. One of the cited reasons for expunging Persepolis from the curriculum is the extremely violent images that appear throughout the novel. Unfortunately, the reality is that many of CPS’s students witness or experience such violence every day, and preventing them from reading Persepolis is not going to protect them from that violence. In fact, reading the novel might actually let some students know they are not alone in their experience and a more stable future is not beyond their grasp. Books can do that, you know. Satrapi’s novel deals with the violence and horrors of her childhood honestly and unflinchingly yet gracefully. And while there are graphic images, her choice of telling her story as a black and white comic mitigates the images in a way, presenting them so they can be discussed, analyzed, and understood rather than simply judged and ignored. I feel that Persepolis is a piece of literature of utmost importance for our students, and really anyone, today, not just in the study of the comic form as legitimate literature but as a “unique glimpse into a nearly unknown and unreachable way of life” (Time). While I can never hope to completely understand Iran’s history and the effect on its people, I certainly feel I have a more nuanced image of the Iranian people and the difficulties they have faced at the hands of their government. Highly recommended.
Good literature is a lens on the world. So what did you read for Banned Books Week?