Censorship: The Dumbing Down of Society
What do the following books have in common?
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
- My Antonia by Willa Cather
- A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- 1984 by George Orwell
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
They are on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned and challenged classics. There are a few dead giveaways on that list, but others probably will surprise you (Winnie-The-Pooh? What’s that all about?). The puny sampling above does not do the list justice. Hemingway and Faulkner are on it (several times), Sinclair Lewis, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, and Stephen King. The list reads as a virtual Who’s Who of literature.
Once, in an indirect way, I had a brush with censorship. A Need To Kill (Ballantine, 1990) by Mark Pettit, published in hardcover in 1990 by Media Publishing, was the story of convicted child-killer John Joubert, who had terrorized the Omaha bedroom community of Bellevue, Nebraska, in the early 1980s.
Media had contracted with Pettit, a reporter for an Omaha TV station and the only journalist at that time to have interviewed Joubert in prison, to write the book. When the chapters started coming in, publisher Jerry Kromberg thought they were a bit skimpy. Pettit was used to writing 30- to 60-second news reports giving just the facts. So Kromberg asked me to beef up the chapters so they could get a decent-sized book out of it. The hardcover first printing of the resulting book sold out in a few days, and Ballantine snapped up the mass market paperback rights.
A group of local folks weren’t too happy with the book. They petitioned ShopKo to remove it from their shelves. I don’t know if ShopKo removed it. I saw a newspaper article detailing the effort, then I heard nothing, and I didn’t go to ShopKo to see if A Need To Kill was still on the shelves.
I don’t know the specific charges against A Need To Kill, but I can guess–graphic violence and some sexual content–and I’m not putting A Need To Kill on the same level as any of the books on the ALA’s banned and challenged list.
My point is some group, somewhere is going to have a problem with almost anything that is published. One reason the Harry Potter books were challenged is that they “encourage” witchcraft. Really? The main characters have a well-defined moral compass, and they celebrate Christmas. They just happen to be able to do magic (which would be kind of cool), which they try to use responsibly. This is fiction. It exercises the imagination, stimulates brain cells, and. I hope, delays the onset of Alzheimer’s (although the verdict is still out on that last point).
One reason often used to challenge Huckleberry Finn is the frequent use of the “N” word and the depiction of African-Americans as slaves. Huckleberry Finn was set in the 1840s when the “N” word was in common use, and African-Americans were slaves. The novel is true of our society at that time. Oh, and one other thing, Huck is not a racist; during their trip down the river, as he comes to know Jim as a human being, he rethinks commonly held ideas about the races that he’d once taken for granted. This was a progressive position for the time when Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885.
I admit that some parents might not want their children to read certain things until they are old enough to understand them. That is the parents’ right, but it is also their responsibility to monitor books their children are reading (or TV shows they are watching or games they are playing or Websites they are visiting).
But I have a problem when others decide my son or me or any other adult should be allowed to read. And to remove certain books from library and bookstore shelves is to make them less available for those of us who prefer to decide for ourselves.
Censorship eats away at our civilization, dumbing down our society and stifling our imagination. It has plagued our world ever since human beings first began to make chicken scratches on stone tablets (obviously I have no data for this, but I can imagine one cave dude shattering a stone tablet on another cave dude’s head because he didn’t like the fellow’s story of The Hunt). The Nazi book burnings scared the crap out of a young writer named Ray Bradbury, who visualized what our future would become if books were outlawed. The result was Bradbury’s 1953 short novel Fahrenheit 451, which to me is the ultimate condemnation of censorship.
There is, however, an upside for authors who have their books banned: readers want to know why, so the authors often will experience a boost in sales.
I’ve rambled on for more than 800 words. Now it’s your turn. What do you think about censorship: for it, against it, don’t care?