BY RON DZWONKOWSKI
FREE PRESS ASSOCIATE EDITOR
Back in 1995, when the Free Press was digging into the Michigan backgrounds of the men responsible for the bombing that killed 169 people at the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City, I went to a gun show to buy a novel that was supposed to have inspired these domestic terrorists. The book was awful reading, filled with violent, hateful ideas and stereotyping — and badly written to boot.
There was no redeeming quality to the work and there were indeed some details in it that may have been instructive for the Oklahoma City killers. I was not happy about contributing to the writer’s income by buying the book. But I wouldn’t ban it. Much as I might detest what an author has to say, I have to acknowledge the author’s right to say it — and the author has to acknowledge my right to be publicly critical of it.
That’s part of our right of free speech, enshrined in the very First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and worth noting particularly in this Banned Books Week.
Really, we shouldn’t even need such a week in the United States. But we have a long and unfortunate history of people trying to ban books they don’t like, including some literary classics such as "The Grapes of Wrath," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Beloved" and "In Cold Blood." All of these and many more well-known titles (the American Library Association’s list is here: http://tinyurl.com/n6w3et) have been targets for groups or individuals who objected to their themes, language or stories and tried to keep them out of libraries or schools, sometimes successfully unless courts intervened.
Librarians, who are often quiet heroes in the protection of free speech, join with other organizations, including the Center for Books in the Library of Congress, in observing Banned Books Week to celebrate “the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment … while drawing attention to the harms of censorship.”
“Intellectual freedom — the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular — provides the foundation for Banned Books Week (which) … stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them.”
Nothing, in my view, is more important to the health of democracy than the free flow of information, ideas and opinions. That’s how we evolve as a society. Our literature, the good, bad and ugly, reflects who we are. There are very few circumstances where I would support hiding that from us.
As a fifth-grader more years ago than I care to say, I got in trouble for reading “The Catcher in the Rye.” I don’t remember how I came into possession of the burgundy-covered paperback, but I do know that I picked it up thinking it was about baseball.
At age 10, maybe I didn’t understand it all, but I sure was getting into the story when the teacher seized my copy. Somehow, I got it back, and, even more intrigued by all the fuss, finished Holden Caulfield’s tale and took a whole list of questions to my oldest brother. Years later, I would recommend the book to my own kids at about the same age and, times change, I think they found it pretty mild by the standards of what was available to them through TV and movies.
I never banned them from reading anything. I always came down in favor of literary exploration, even if it meant I was the one answering a list of questions.
Keep information flowing, even if it makes you uncomfortable. This week, any week, read a banned book — and be glad you can.