Saturday, September 25, 2004

Banned Books Week

September 25th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. So this is me, walking the line with my comrades, saying “read a banned book.” Sure, you could do it just to snub people who want to take books out of circulation. That would be fine. For myself, I’m going to read Tom Sawyer, mostly because my mother inscribed it “no man is a failure who has friends” many years ago and it’s kind of what I’m in the mood for.

But think, also, about that message for a moment. It shouldn’t just be about tweaking the censors. Reading occasionally, ought to be about exposing yourself to something you don’t like, something you’re not sure of. Sometimes, it ought to be about an open question. It even ought to be, as the nuns and brothers taught me, about temporarily opening your closed questions. If nothing else, it makes your arguments against your opponents stronger.

So, if you’re up for it, read something you don’t expect to agree with. In an election year, it ought to be easy to find a book by some blowhard pundit you can’t stand on the other side. And if you read some work of literature and decide you don’t like it, talk about it.

Banned Books Week also, for me, symbolizes one of the great failures of librarianship. Sometimes, we assume everyone shares our professional values, so we don’t bother to explain them. Then, when we meet people who don’t share our viewpoint, we dig our heels in and call them censors.

And yet, we spend hours talking about “collection development” and “building the collection” and deciding what should be on the shelf and what should be stored elsewhere or interlibrary loaned. These are necessary discussions. Nobody has infinite space or money, and in point of fact, the United States lacks a national library with a mandate to collect all published materials. (While the Library of Congress does an admirable job, it belongs to 535 specific users, their name is in the title, and buddy, don’t you forget it.)

So there is, and should be, choice involved. In fact, a good librarian makes choices about not only which books to buy, but which to recommend. You don’t push the intro psych students to the same articles as the faculty. Lots of kids may have the language skills to read Old Yeller or Sounder, but you don't give them to the ones who aren't emotionally ready. You don’t give anybody Catcher in the Rye, because Holden Caulfield is a whiny little git and there’s not a damn thing wrong with him that a swift kick in the ass and a job flipping burgers couldn’t fix, and where the hell are this brat’s parents anyway?

Oops. So it’s not that far to the book-banning side, is it?

But it is. Because I know, even though I think there’s a million better things to do with your time than read Catcher in the Rye, that you have the right to make your own decision on the matter. I can even respect that it must be pretty well written to make Holden so real that I despise him so viscerally.

That’s the tension. On the one hand, we have to make sure that the wide variety of human experience is available. On the other hand, we have to make sure that it’s reflected in the “best” way for our constituents. And on the third hand (and that’s always where it gets tricky), we have to make sure that all our constituents are treated respectfully, even when they don’t treat us or each other that way. Because while some of them want to stick their heads in the sand and hope something goes away, some of them have legitimate questions about how libraries and schools work.

So here’s your real challenge: pick a book that you don’t think everybody should read. And then go down to your public library, catch a librarian’s eye, and ask them what they think.

I should warn you… that conversation may end with you running for whatever Board works with the library in your town.

There would be worse things.


Blogger lemming said...

I accept your challenge, Since one of my occupational hazards is that I read an awful lot of books that people would like to ban on a pretty frequent basis, I will read something I expect to dislike. Will keep you posted. :-)

1:18 PM, September 25, 2004  

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