Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Banned Books Week

    Banned Books Week is this week.
    That might be seen a non-event, an occasion for clever  library displays, such as this one at the Northbrook Public Library. Good library marketing, and a reminder that great literature is what shakes us up, and that being shaken up is a good thing, except to those unfortunate fearful few who rather suppress books than think about them. 
    While I usually enjoy the frisson of superiority that Banned Books Week encourages, a chance to sneer inwardly at the distant flyspeck towns where Huck Finn is harassed and Judy Blume novels are snatched off the shelf by clench-faced rural housewives looking to ensure that the interior lives of their children are as arid as their own, this year it feels a little forced. 
     Perhaps because we in the Chicago area had our own brush with the censor's thick-fingered hand just last spring, when the Chicago School Board cack-handedly pulled  Marjane Satrapi's well-respected graphic novel Persepolis off the library shelves (or out of the seventh grade curriculum; once the CPS went into damage control, it was difficult to determine exactly what it had done or was doing, which is par for the course).   
     Yes, it was hard to give much weight to the flap, given the continuing chaos of the Chicago Public Schools. With almost half the students never graduating at all, what's one book more or less that they aren't reading before their slink off to their constricted lives? Who can parse the seventh grade curriculum while buildings are being closed by the dozen and kids shepherded under guard through free-fire zones? You just can't get too worked up about kids having to wait until 8th grade to skim a picture book about a girl's coming of age in revolutionary Iran.
      But that doesn't mean we should forget about it. The incident displayed, not so much any incipient censorship problem in cosmopolitan Chicago, as the general poor health of the school administration. The mechanism at work seemed to be, a lone parent complains about a book -- or, rather, a single panel in the book, depicting torture in a cartoonish fashion -- and the the school system, rather than standing firm for what it supposedly believes, plucks the book out of the hands of every seventh grader, as if that solves the problem.
    Was that smart?
    The harm lingers. Chicago is prominently featured on this year's Banned Books Week web page; one dumb administrator makes one dumb decision, and the city is the poster boy for oppression. You can read the deputy general counsel's case law ridden letter defending CPS's actions, if you have the stomach for it, by clicking here. It isn't the work of somebody with a soul.
     We are fortunate, in that in the United States in general censorship is not an issue. Government isn't in the book-burning business, and while individuals would no doubt love to step in, they generally don't. The isolated book banners -- religious fanatics and the sexually terrified, mainly -- usually do little more than bring attention to worthwhile books. In that light, we should thank them. Perhaps even for something more. Not only are they more to be pitied than feared, but they are at least acting out of a warped concern for their children's welfare. With so many parents in Chicago caring too little, we shouldn't condemn anybody who cares too much, even if they care too much about the wrong things. At least their hearts are in the right place. At least they're trying to do something to help their children. How many parents in Chicago can say the same thing? Too few. 

Photo atop blog: Morgan Library, New York City.       


  1. Neil,

    When my daughter was younger, there were things that I did not want my daughter exposed to before she was ready to handle it. A "one-size-fits-all" policy when it comes to kids and books doesn't work. There has to be be a middle ground between "anything goes" and censorship.

  2. Why do you say a lot of Chicago parents don't care about their children. I am a Chicago parent, and both my kids went to Chicago public schools and I spent 8 years on a school's local school council and I know thousands of such parents and I think that comment is close to universally wrong.

    1. Certainly the vast majority of Chicago parents are not like that, but Neil is simply pointing out that a small, but not insignificant, number of Chicago parents make little or no effort to get to know what their children are learning at school, or to make sure that their children are even attending school. If all Chicago parents were as invested as you obviously are with your children's education, then we'd have much less of a public schools crisis in Chicago.

  3. Perhaps "don't care" is not the best word choice but with daily murders frequently committed by young adults who have obviously never learned much about human values, a dropout rate that is simply amazing, out of control gangs, etc., etc., one would certainly be left with the impression that too many children have too little parental caring.

  4. There's a big difference between banning books and choosing more appropriate books for a curriculum.


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