October 10, 2010

Why we can't ban or burn books anymore

Spearfish writer Lorraine Collins is a regular contributor to the Black Hills Pioneer newspaper, and we're delighted that she shares her column with us for Black Hills Monitor. She's touched upon a wide range of topics, and this time she writes about banning and burning books.  Please double check to ensure that this column is not banned in your community.  If it    isn't, please consider having it banned so that we might increase readership of Black Hills Monitor.   You may contact Lorraine at collins1@rushmore.com
The September AARP bulletin, which I receive because I have been a member of the American Association of Retired Persons for some years now, has a list of books that have been banned at various times in America. This was published in honor of Banned Books Week beginning September 25th. It's always fun to read the list of famous and classic books that have been, or still are, banned in various libraries and schools in America.

For instance, there's the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. AARP says this was frequently censored from 1789 until early in the 20th century and sometimes "sanitized" by publishers so it could be used in schools. One problem is that it contains a very witty essay, "Advice to a young man on the choice of a mistress." I couldn't remember ever reading this but was able to find it online in a matter of moments.

 It should be noted that Franklin tells the young man he should get married, and explains marriage is the only way a man may be completely happy and successful. He says that wives and husbands help each other and offer different strengths and talents to achieve a good life. However, if the young man persists in his present attitude, Franklin advises him to seek out an older woman and explains why. At the end, he repeats his advice about getting married. I think it's an entertaining essay by one of our more interesting Founding Fathers.

My experience in finding this essay illustrates why banning books or burning them is quite a useless exercise these days. It can be a theatrical or symbolic act, pleasing somebody's ego or assuaging some citizen's concern, but it's pointless. The books, or excerpts from the books, reviews of the books, and directions about how to find the books are all over the Internet. And kids have access to computers.

Another fact about banning a book is illustrated by my searching for Ben Franklin's essay on line. When something is banned, it becomes more attractive, an object of curiosity, and generates a lot of interest among those who otherwise might not have paid much attention to it. In the old days when a book was "banned in Boston" it became a best seller.

The list of books that have been banned at some time and in some place in America includes many famous classics including Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dr. Zhivago, A Farewell to Arms and 1984. Those were regarded as too political. Books banned for having too much sex include Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Lolita and Jaws. Those are probably the ones we've heard about the most because sex is sensational.

Darwin's On the Origin of Species has been banned as have books like the  Lord of the Rings trilogy because they were thought to be irreligious. Books in the Harry Potter series were burned in New Mexico and challenged in 19 states not only for being irreligious but because the books include rebellion against authority.

There is a long list of famous books that have been banned from time to time because somebody thought they were socially offensive. Oddly enough, this includes The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as The Scarlet Letter and Gone With The Wind. Some schools have banned several of Shakespeare's plays including King Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet.

Reading any list of banned and burned books causes me to shake my head in puzzlement. Sometimes I wonder if those offended by the books have actually read them, and what they fear about them. I do think it's fear that causes people or societies to ban books. They don't want to upset the status quo, or introduce new ideas, or explore social and political issues.

 However, I've always thought that ignorance is much more dangerous for society than information, whether we like the information or not. So in honor of Banned Book Week, I'd encourage us all to go get one and read it.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at collins1@rushmore.com.

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