Celebrate Your Freedom to Read!

At a conference last year, I met a young woman who publishes a weblog with book reviews aimed at pious Christians. Little traffic lights next to the reviews indicate — red, orange, and green — whether she deems a book suitable for her readership.

Whenever she “awards” a book with an orange or red light, she explains how she arrived at that verdict by pointing out such details as “promotes the use of magic”1, “portrays homosexuality as normal,” or “presents evolution as fact.”

I whole-heartedly disagree with many, if not most, of her assessments. Nevertheless, I honestly think that she provides a useful service to her blog’s readers: if her reviews and warnings help these people select books that they will most likely enjoy reading, I’m all for it.

Obviously, in a free society, we have every right to avoid what we don’t like. What we, as members of such a free society, do not have, though, is the right to tell anyone what they must, or must not read. Unfortunately, though, not everyone shares this point of view.

The attempt of a few to tell the many what they can read

The American Library Association has more than 10,500 challenges on file, each of which is an “attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.” The predominant reasons that were given: a book is “sexually explicit,” contains “offensive language,” and/or is “unsuited to any age group” [emphasis mine].

The ALA maintains a list of the most-challenged books for the current decade. On this list you can find such timeless masterpieces as Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Although the ALA website states that “[b]ooks usually are challenged with the best intentions — to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information,” these challenges are based on the notion that because someone disapproves of the contents of a certain book — or any other expression of human creativity, for that matter –, they have the right to also limit other people’s access to it.

We need to tell these people that that is not the case. Regardless of what their motives are, and regardless of what specific content they find objectionable.

Anyone who makes something artistic, anything artistic, enjoys the right to freely speak his or her creative mind. In a similar manner, we all enjoy the right to freely decide whether we want to listen to what these creators have to say.

One of my favorite quotes regarding freedom of speech is this one by Rob Clark:

Freedom of speech is the only true guarantee for any other freedoms, so to an extent it is the one freedom by which the level of freedom of a society can be gauged. In a society without freedom of speech, they can tell you how free you are–you can’t tell them back.

It’s not just overly zealous governments who all-too-often try to take such freedoms away from us “for our own good.” It’s also overly zealous individuals and advocacy groups who think they need to protect us all from the darker side of the human condition as it may be expressed in art.

These people are most welcome to avoid anything they find offensive in any way. But it doesn’t — and mustn’t — go further than that.

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read

To raise awareness for these attempts at banning books, the American Library Association celebrates our freedom to read through an event called The Banned Books Week. If you want to support this important cause, check out their website at http://bannedbooksweek.org. And please do spread the word. Because that is your right!

  1. Yup, “Harry Potter.” How did you guess? 

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  1. Steve

    Preach it! As one of those nasty “pious Christians” I’m extremely annoyed & disappointed by general book banning. Doesn’t make sense. Can’t stand this “paternalism” that people try to push on us. Great post.

  2. Jochen Wolters

    Thanks for your supporting words, Steve.

    As an aside, I do hope that my use of the term “pious Christian” did not come across as mean-spirited. I strongly feel that anyone should be able to freely practice their chosen religion in whatever way they choose as long as they, in turn, grant that same freedom to anyone else.