Hello again, dear readers,
As I am writing this post on the heels of Banned Books Week, I thought it might be a good time to discuss literary censorship. I realize, since I am writing this blog for a publishing house, that a post listing the reasons against banning books would end up being a post that merely preaches to the choir. So, rather than simply enumerate all the reasons I (and, I assume, all of you) despise book censorship, I thought it might be more interesting to discuss the consequences, both positive and negative, of book banning.
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, was banned from my hometown’s school district some years ago. Not only could this novel not be included on any public school curriculum, but the school libraries were forbidden from keeping it in stock. The censorship of this novel led me to believe that it suggested some pretty condemning perspectives on race and/or Christianity (the things that my town usually objected to in a work of literature). Imagine my surprise, then, once I finally picked up the novel on my own time, and discovered that the only objectionable aspect to the novel was its use of the n-word – and even this derogatory term was used in a questioning, rather than a lauding, context. My school district’s banning of this novel turned it into a work that, prior to actually reading, I perceived as radical, even though the novel itself is not. These mis-perceptions of books happen on much wider scales, too; Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, for example, although a wonderful memoir about a daughter’s struggle to understand her closeted gay father, has in some communities gathered the unfair reputation of being pornography.
Book banning doesn’t just alter the cultural perception of a book – sometimes it can affect how many people actually consume the book, too. While this claim does not hold true for small-scale bans, e.g. eliminating a book from a single library or school, banning a book often results in increased sales. When Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis was banned from numerous public schools in Chicago last year, sales both online and within bookstores spiked. Sales increased so much within Chicago itself that many bookstores reported being unable to keep the book stocked, even though the memoir had been available for a decade without ever selling so quickly (http://tinyurl.com/l7cxye3). While I am never going to advocate for banning books to increase sales, as I believe that more authors are hurt than helped by such reduced exposure/free speech, it is interesting to note that sometimes literary censorship gives people more incentive to read the banned books rather than put them aside.
There are, of course, also the obvious consequences of book censorship: the restriction of free speech; the closeting away of ideas; the limited opportunities to read material that challenges our understandings of a particular notion, place, group of people, or lifestyle. Books are usually banned to prevent what some individuals perceive as dangerous ideas that could corrupt others. Several months ago, psychologist Christopher J. Ferguson decided to investigate the relationship between frequently challenged books and their perceived negative impacts upon people (specifically, in this case, Texan teenagers). The study did not find any correlation between reading banned books and a student’s GPA. Nor was there any perceived relationship between reading banned books and committing crimes, either violent or nonviolent (http://tinyurl.com/n3htdmh). If such studies were to be repeated on a larger scale, perhaps the banning of books could – at least on the basis of decreasing academic motivation and/or encouraging crime – one day be proven to be unnecessary.
More promising, however, is the study’s discovery of a positive correlation between reading banned books and partaking in civic activities. In other words, if a teen in this study were more likely to read banned books, then the teen was also more likely to vote, go out of their way to help others, and/or volunteer. This is, again, not an argument FOR banning books so that these positive effects might become wider spread, and nor is this to say that reading banned books automatically increases teenagers’ compassionate behavior, political awareness, etc. I nonetheless find it fascinating that reading controversial books correlates with civic behavior. Clearly more research must be done here, but it seems that statements regarding a book’s ability to widen peoples’ compassion for situations/people normally outside of their lives could one day be statistically based.
Book banning creates numerous cultural, financial, and psychological ripples through our society. I do not support book banning, but since censorship is (unfortunately) not going away anytime soon, I do think it worthwhile to discuss the consequences of literary censorship.
Until next time, dear readers,