Banned Books Week is Sept. 23-29 this year. Sponsored by the American Library Association, the week is designed to highlight the importance of access to information. While the week is called “banned books,” very few books are actually banned nowadays. They’re more often asked to be removed from libraries, with many libraries refusing the requests.
Banned Books week got its origins in the school settings, when librarians noticed a surge in calls to remove books from libraries. The ALA now compiles a list of books that are most often challenged to being included in libraries. When you look at the most recent list (2017), challenged books included Thirteen Reasons Why (a book about a girl who commits suicide), The Hate U Give (a book about the unjust shooting of an unarmed black teen), and I am Jazz ( a book about a transgender girl).
The challenged books all discuss subject matter that is new and can make people uncomfortable. They are subject matters which imply that things aren’t normal and happy, that life isn’t a place where everything and everyone and every problem fit into neat little places. That is why they are challenged. But this is why the books are important.
Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, regained popularity after a Netflix series based on it aired. The book highlights the important topic of teen suicide. But, it is challenged over concerns that it will serve as an instruction manual, rather than an opener of conversation on the right ways to deal with teen bullying and depression.
Truthfully, suicide is a challenging subject, but to ignore it altogether would be a mistake, too. Those who felt alone and as if they were the only ones in the world would continue to feel that way, instead of being able to read a book that showed them that other people felt that way, and that there were other solutions. Books provide access to information and subject matters to help people connect to the world and people like themselves.
While Banned Books is ostensibly about access to information, I think the bigger lesson is accessing information that is challenging. There are topics that are tough and nuanced, and not one size fits all. Reading books that people want to shove under the bed or chuck in the fire is a good way to see the challenges of the world. The fact that people are trying to repress the information means they know it has a kernel of connection, a spark that will make people want to read it and keep reading it. If it were boring, it wouldn’t have to be banned or challenged. People would pick it, read a few pages (or some, just a few paragraphs), say “Blech!” as they scrunched up their noses, and promptly shut the book, never opening it again.
But the joy in the books that are most frequently challenged is that they are good books. They resonate with people, enveloping them. Any author could only hope to land on a banned books list, as it’s a sign that your stuff is so good that they know the only way people won’t get hooked is to ban it.
But, I digress. My point is, as this week filters in, everyone should take a few minutes and pick up a book that is challenging. One that discusses topics that are controversial, or topics you know little about. Take a moment to read these other opinions and see the nuances and the fresh perspective. And that is something we will keep our entire lives. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., said, “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”