From September 27 to October 3, the American Library Association is observing its annual Banned Books Week. You may have noticed it’s an event Bas Bleu mentions every year, because we’re firm believers in celebrating the freedom to read, as well as the role of libraries as access points to knowledge for, well, everyone! But while the ALA certainly does yeoman’s work tracking censorship attempts in America, Banned Books Week isn’t just about protecting access to the books themselves; it’s a great opportunity to think about why we reject certain books in the first place.
Just as we have the freedom to read what we want, it’s generally understood that we have the freedom not to read what we don’t want. While a reader may have preferences for genre or writing style, she may also have preferences for the amount of graphic sex, violence, or salty language included in the books she reads. And generally we agree the reader should be free to choose her books based on those preferences.
Yet there is something to be said for stepping out of our literary comfort zone, not only to broaden our horizons as readers, but to broaden our horizons as humans. Reading about lives unlike our own may not change our core personalities or beliefs. But if reading something unfamiliar or uncomfortable opens our eyes to the experiences of people different from us, particularly those people we and perhaps society at large view—and sometimes persecute—as Other, how is that a bad thing? Can we, in good conscience, avoid reading experiences that might increase our empathy, deepen our understanding of those with whom we disagree, or alert us to the trials of strangers separated from us by race, language, geography, politics, or religion?
As recent news stories have shown, asking people to read books they don’t want to read can escalate into a pretty hot-button topic. And we certainly hope we’re not seeing a new trend in censorship: college students refusing to read books they believe threaten their established world view. (The good folks over at Book Riot have an excellent and thought-provoking take on this. It’s definitely worth a read.)
This week, as libraries and booksellers across America commemorate Banned Books Week, think about the books you may have banned from your own reading list and see if you can identify at least one title worthy of reexamining. You may be surprised by what you discover in its pages!