You know this photo: Nazis burning books in Babelplatz, a large public square across from Humboldt University in the heart of Berlin. Germany was a highly cultured society, yet it wasn't too difficult to get to the place where its students willingly burned the books they were to supposed to be studying if they had been written by Jews.
The U.S. wasn't immune in those years either. In the 1930s there were huge battles about James Joyce's classic Ulysses, a gorgeous and very moving book but so difficult to understand that I took an entire college course on it. Hard to believe that anyone would bother working through it for any but literary reasons. Even so, copy after copy was seized from trans-Atlantic passengers arriving on ocean liners in Manhattan. Finally, in 1932, after an edition of the book intended as a model for U.S. publication had been seized along with the others, Judge John M. Woolsey lifted the ban in a famous, highly cited opinion* that appears as a preface in many editions. There are many such stories, about many books, but most of them well before the 1960s. After that, it seemed we'd "grown out of" book banning. Wrong.
I read Catcher in the Rye in the 7th grade. Years later I had the privilege of reading it aloud with my own son at precisely the same age. Nearly 20 years apart, we both loved it. Yet efforts to ban it in both school and community libraries have gone on almost as long as the life of the book itself. BlogHer and book blogger SassyMonkey, in a detailed BlogHer post, reminded us that Banned Books Week is here (September 27 to October 4, 2008). The American Library Association created this week in 1982, and sadly, we still need it today. Sarah Palin was not the first, nor will she be the last, government official to fire a librarian after a discussion about removing books from library shelves. There's a long history of such behavior, and other, more overt attempts, both here and around the world.
Try to imagine a time where you had to hide the books you love. Or where you couldn't get Harry Potter from the library to re-live the Hogwarts adventure with your own children. Or you couldn't get access to published health information from books like Our Bodies, Ourselves. Imagine no Huck Finn, no Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison or John Steinbeck or -- and this is a biggie in the book banning world, no Judy Blume. Right now there are community and school librarians risking their careers to fight to protect their shelves from marauding moralists. Right now.
So next time you go to the library, ask your librarian how things are going. Ask at your kids' school library too. If issues are arising, you can help. In Sarah Palin's town, after she fired the libararian there was such an uproar from town citizens that she had to rehire her. If we love books, and reading, or found some of our favorites through the recommendation of a thoughtful book-loving librarian -- or even if we just don't like the idea that somebody else will decide what books our tax dollars won't buy for the library - we need to keep our ears to the ground and our eyes open. Not just during Banned Books Week, but every other week too.
*I hold that Ulysses is a sincereand honest book, and I think that the criticisms of it are entirely disposedby its rationale . . . The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxonwords known to almost all men, and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe, by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe. In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters,it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring . . .
I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes Ulyssesis a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in manyplaces the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.