Book censorship continues

Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, November 13, 2018

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I am a huge fan of the American Library Association. It’s the most low-keyed, under-the-radar activist group imaginable.

You see, the ALA isn’t made up of librarians who sit behind desks piled with tomes and keep track of who’s late in returning a loaner. No, the ALA is the nation’s foremost advocate of information services of all kinds. A core belief of the organization is that the free flow of information is vital to an enlightened and healthy society.

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In pursuit of its goal of ensuring access to information, the ALA each year publishes a list of the most-often challenged and censored books in the United States.

You wouldn’t think there would be a lot of censorship in the U.S., given our First Amendment right to free speech and the press. But you would be wrong. In a nation that has never quite shed the notion that there are witches to be tried and punished, there are still book critics aplenty, ready and willing to ensure that books they find offensive don’t find their way into libraries where they might warp the minds of young and old alike.

In addition to its annual list, the ALA keeps track of the most censored books by decade, and I found the most recent of those lists to be fascinating.

During the first decade of this century, the most-often banned or challenged books in the U.S. were the insanely popular Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. The series, which is credited with turning on a generation of youngsters to the pleasure of reading, was challenged because it was viewed as anti-family, had an unpopular religious viewpoint (unpopular with the censors, you understand) and allegedly promoted the occult and Satanism.

But censors don’t confine their anger to modern sensations. They also have long memories. Still among the top 10 most challenged books from 2000-2010 was John Steinbeck’s brilliant Of Mice and Men because of its offensive language and portrayal of racism. (Incidentally, it was performed to appreciative audiences by the Smithfield Little Theatre in 2017.

Graphic discussions of racism are often at the root of challenges, and you can’t help but believe it’s because such discussions make some people uncomfortable, quite possibly for the wrong reasons.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou is one. Its graphic depiction of childhood rape, racism and sexuality have made it a frequent target.

To Kill a Mockingbird still leaves censors livid with rage for the same reason. Harper Lee’s sensitive look at racism through the eyes of a child in the Jim Crow South was unwelcome to many when it was published in 1936 and, based on the recent criticism, remains so for many today.

Quite naturally, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was on the most-challenged list. I can imagine that Mr. Clemens would chuckle — and probably be quite pleased — to learn that the censors of the 21st century find him as objectionable as did those of the 19th, for indeed they do.

I understand why most of the books are on the list, though I vigorously disagree with them being there, but one of the most-often banned books just doesn’t make any sense at all to me. Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey became a Disney Adventure and has been a sensation with young children. It does involve magic, which I suppose could be objectionable, and some super hero running around in his underpants might make a few folks squeamish, but, come on. Captain Underpaints?

Though I will admit that its inclusion is probably about as logical as some of the others.

Thanks to the ALA for keeping track. It sobering to see how sensitive we are about what we want our neighbors — and our neighbors’ children — to read.