Jerry McBride/Durango Herald photo illustration
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald photo illustration
Phil Kerby, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, once quipped that “censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”
This impulse remains formidable.
Since the 30th annual Banned Books Week kicked off Saturday, Durangoans have been reminded that in 20th century America, authors were regularly prosecuted under the Comstock Laws, their novels publicly condemned and legally suppressed, including D.H. Lawrence’s minor masterwork Lady Chatterly’s Lover.
Just weeks after an American-made movie that defames Islam incited riots in the Middle East, Banned Books Week’s rollicking defense of free speech – an argument that has been locally amplified by illustrious guest speakers, defiant readings, supportive newspaper editorials, suitably erudite panel discussions and events at all the usual intelligentsia haunts, from Maria’s Bookshop to the Fort Lewis College – has never been more urgent. Yet in an age when grandmothers are reading Fifty Shades of Grey in Starbucks, to many Durangoans, book-banning seems quaint.
Mark Esper, editor of The Silverton Standard, said, “We keep looking for books to ban, to no avail. I’ve done a lot of historical research about this town, and I’ve never heard of it here.”
Andy White, director of the Durango Public Library, said, “We’ve had some people express concerns over a book – usually about its age appropriateness, but no one’s ever come in and said, ‘I don’t want that book in this library.’”
Librarians in Ignacio and Bayfield agreed that the bathetic civic zeal that led Victorian communities to ban books is all but dead in Southwest Colorado.
Peter Schertz, co-owner of Maria’s Bookshop, said he thought many people didn’t take book-banning seriously.
“The issue is meaningful especially at bookstores because books contain ideas. Distributing those ideas is the heart of freedom. When people have the feeling that certain books should be banned, they’re disrupting that freedom.”
Despite Durangoans’ consensus that book banning is bad, a neurosis of a bygone, unenlightened and sexually hung-up America, books continue to be banned in public libraries across America – particularly in schools.
Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Freedom of Expression, who traveled from New York City to speak Saturday on a panel at Durango Public Library, said, “It’s a long struggle over the way people want kids to perceive the world they live in, over how to educate them, what are the values that we want to instill – and it’s a battle that’s unlikely to end at any point. In a society as diverse as ours in which there are so many diametrically opposed opinions, that’s free speech, you should disagree.”
According to the American Library Association, more than 11,000 books were challenged between 1990 and 2010, with best-sellers such as The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter series and the Twilight series attracting disproportionate ire.
Parents lodged more than 6,000 complaints. The most frequent complaints were that a book was sexually explicit (3,169), contained offensive language (2,658), was unsuited for an age group (2,232), contained violence (1,310,) or promoted the occult (1,051), according to the association.
Even books of evident literary quality remain vulnerable to attack. The Office for Intellectual Freedom reports at least 46 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course “Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century” have been targets of bans, including Beloved by Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Easy to mock
When the Concord Public Library banned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885, Twain wrote to his friend Charles Webster that the library’s committee “have expelled Huck from their library as ‘trash and suitable only for the slums.’ That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure.”
In many instances, the modern censorious impulse appears as easy to mock. According to the ALA, in the 1990s, the first book in the Where’s Waldo series by Martin Handford was one of the most banned in the country. Keen-eyed detractors complained that in one characteristically crowded beach scene, the illustrator vaguely alludes to the existence of a woman’s nipple.
Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ease of Internet research, in 2010, the Texas Board of Education banned the beloved picture book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Did You See, mistaking its author, Bill Martin Jr., for an obscure Marxist theorist of the same name.
In 2010, a Virginia school purged The Diary of Anne Frank from its shelves, attempting to protect children from its “sexually explicit” and “homosexual” themes. The Washington Post reported that it was also banned in Alabama in 1998, with four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee calling it (spoiler alert) “a real downer.”
Even the dictionary has been banned in various schools. In 2010, a California elementary school banned Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, scandalized by its definition of “oral sex.” In 1987, the Anchorage School Board banned American Heritage Dictionary for its “objectionable” entries, including “bed,” “knocker” and “balls.”
Though residents of San Juan and La Plata counties have taken a permissive approach to the literature our children are exposed to, many Colorado communities – including our neighbors – have not. In 2007, Phillip Pullman’s theological polemic The Golden Compass was removed from the Ortega Middle School Library in Alamosa for being anti-Christianity.
In 2008, Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things was ejected from Colorado Springs Middle School Library, while in Castle Rock, Sarah Brannen’s Uncle Bobby’s Wedding was challenged at the Douglas County Libraries, because it featured two gay guinea pigs.
Calling book bans obviously absurd, Ted Holteen, Arts & Entertainment Editor of The Durango Herald, said, “everything we read in high school was banned at some point. But it’s still something you have to keep an eye on. Any psycho out there who thinks they have the right to control anything that published for someone’s voluntary consumption – if you don’ t like it, I mean, shut up, don’t read it.”