Book Bandits: When Reading Literature Becomes Rebellious

Nothing irks me more than the concept of banning books. It is an ignorant exhibition of control, an instance of someone else exercising their moral beliefs over another. It is a conflagration of our basic rights and freedoms and it turns the simple act of reading into a rebellious pastime.

Perhaps you think I am exaggerating or you think there are times when banning a book is an okay thing to do because, well, sometimes the content is offensive or suggestive and sexy. And that’s you’re opinion. You are absolutely entitled to it and I don’t fault you for it. But if that’s the case, then I don’t encourage you to keep reading this post because I don’t want to offend your sensibilities with my own perspective.

Books are all things that humans are because humans create them. We write them, we dream them. They are an expression of who we are and the many experiences, dreams and all the imagination of which we are capable. If we ban books, then we are denying a part of who we are.

Many of you know that I live in Kansas, the veritable ground zero of book banning. This is why if I ever have children of my own, they will be going to private school because I won’t put up with the way the Kansas public school system has, in the past, selected and disregarded books from their curriculum (Please excuse my brief rant. I live in a state that believes teaching evolution in a science class is controversial).

I’m not a teacher, so I don’t know the inner-workings of it all, but as a practiced individual in the field of literature, I believe that teachers are capable of making educated selections for their students to read and that the reading of controversial texts is absolutely appropriate in a classroom setting because the teacher is someone who is expertly trained and should be able to host difficult conversations in a safe environment. School is all about learning new things and considering alternative perspectives. Instead, we live in a world where everything must be PC. At least that’s what they tell us…because it really isn’t.

Photo credit: Art Credit: Anselm Kiefer
Photo credit: Art Credit: Anselm Kiefer

When I was in college, I took a public relations course and was given a project wherein each student had to come up with a PR campaign. It was 2005, a time when a bunch of books were replaced (not banned) in the Kansas Public School (specifically the Blue Valley School district) curriculum due to the controversial nature of some of the content. The kicker is, some of the books they replaced the controversial ones with made absolutely NO SENSE in regard to literary themes, motifs and subject matter.

Let me give you a couple of examples. A classic high school read, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, was taken off the curriculum. I would not have objected the removal of this book if they had deigned to replace it with a more modern text that dealt with similar themes. But no. Instead, they replaced it with Don Quixote. There’s nothing wrong with Don Quixote. But the messages taught in The Awakening are completely different from Don Quixote. They move from a story with a female protagonist who goes through a period of self discovery (and the controversial orgasm) to a story with a male protagonist whose story is all about repression. What sort of message does this send? It certainly doesn’t encourage self-discovery and individuality.

Here’s another example. They removed the infamous Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings due to its use of biblical verses to justify black people’s hatred of white people and replaced it with The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass is a fine text to read. But the fact that they picked this book makes me laugh because it contains passages that depict white people justifying their hatred of black people with bible verses. Personally, I don’t think the person who made this decision knew anything about the books in question. Anyway, you get the point, I think.

Let me pause here and note that there is a difference between a parent keeping their own child from reading a book and banning a book for all readers. But again, let me emphasize, that I believe parents should trust the teachers and if they have concerns, then to have an open-minded conversation with them about their course selections. This, of course, is an ideal world in which every person is a reasonable human. And from what my teacher friends tell me, that in no way exists. (Treat your kids’ teachers better, people! For crying out loud!)

So where is this rant of mine coming from? I came across an interesting post from IO9 last night titled The 12 Weirdest Reasons for Banning Science Fiction and Fantasy Books. I certainly haven’t read all of the books on this list. Some of them, I’ve never even heard of before. But if you read through the reasons various ones have been banned, I think you’ll understand my indignation. A number of them profess ridiculous reasons. I think one of my favorites is the banning of Little Red Riding Hood. And no, it’s not because of the violence. It’s because Little Red is carrying a bottle of wine to her grandmother’s house in the basket. Try as I might, and I’ve read the original tales, I don’t recall reading about a bottle of wine in this story. I’m sure it’s there but I seriously doubt a bottle of wine in the story is going to encourage a preschooler to drink.

As I stated in the beginning, the banning of books is a ridiculous practice in a society where we are embarrassed by the very things that make us human. Our sexuality is a sin despite the fact that it is a part of our very nature. Reading about oppression isn’t nice, even though it is a big part of our history and our current political scene. Not everything in the world is nice and tidy and I know people want to protect their children from the reality of it all, but there is a point where protection and denial meet and where sheltering someone crosses the line to crippling and repression.

What is your opinion on banned books? Do you read them? Are you a teacher? How would you solve the problem of literature and difficult subjects in the classroom?

Media Credit: Pleasantville movie.
Media Credit: Pleasantville movie.

9 thoughts on “Book Bandits: When Reading Literature Becomes Rebellious

  1. It’s ignorant and small-minded. Books aren’t trouble, people are. That, and I can never shake the fact that the only one’s banning books are those who have nothing better to do with their time. This is great! Thanks so much for sharing!

    If you’re ever interested in some other great literary musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!

  2. Great post, Sara! Even though I live in Kansas, I was unaware there were so many book bannings…ugh. Sorry to say, though, I’m not surprised.

    1. Thanks Bryn! Yes, knowing KS for what it is, it’s not a surprising thing. But there’s always hope it can get better, right?

  3. We don’t ban books in our district; we instead offer parents and students an opt-out. I’ve only had one student take that option and it was for Lord of the Flies. I expressed concern when my son had to read Sister Carrie for history. He didn’t care for the permissive sexual nature of the protagonist. The teacher was surprised at our concern. Banning is definitely a difficult issue. Replacing texts out of expressed concern should be a viable option.

  4. I remember reading Barbara Smucker’s Underground To Canada in middle school and being stunned by the things that happened in the world that I didn’t quite understand at the time. That was only in middle school – I can’t believe that such books are being banned in high school! I don’t agree with the concept of banning books – it’s so much better to make a teenager read a well-written, honest book about our society’s social and cultural issues than getting the wrong information from a biased article on the Internet, right?
    I think that “controversial” books in the classroom are a must. What’s the point of reading in class if it’s not teaching the students about something they aren’t aware of?

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