Not even fire can permanently destroy books. Hitler tried it, but the history, ideas, stories and adventures found in books have lived on. The late science fiction, social commentary and mystery writer Ray Bradbury took up the challenge in his 1953 novel in “Fahrenheit 451” where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found. The dystopian novel shows a world where dissenting ideas are suppressed.
This week, we observe Banned Books Week. Through Saturday, the American Library Association and others promote intellectual freedom in libraries, schools and bookstores and encourage readers to examined banned books. The bookstore at Umpqua Community College has displayed a table of the banned books in its inventory.
The most notable and recurring banned book is Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because of the man named “Nigger Jim” who accompanied Huck Finn on his journey down the Mississippi River. It’s a wonder why. “Nigger” is a word in common use throughout the country, usually in reference to our president. It’s doubtful that a 19th century fictional urchin caused the use of the word today. “Liberal” horror over the word in the greatest example of American literature has neither kept the book off library shelves and scholastic reading lists nor, apparently, made it unacceptable for everyday conversation.
My experience is that young readers, even those who read the book even before it’s assigned in high school, know that is not an acceptable word to us today. It’s essential to understanding the times in which the story is set.
More volumes are banned or challenged every year. It’s a staple of headlines and news stories as Banned Books Week approaches.
Why is it important and necessary that we resist attempts to ban books?
First, because we don’t know what’s what until we have been exposed to a new idea, considered it and opposing views. At a time when the use of chemical weapons is in the news and humanitarian issues, as well as ones regarding the use of our military, are raised, what are we to do? What is the role of the United States and the American people? Certainly our government’s first duty is to protect its citizens from harm. There are compelling arguments that the U.S. may harm its own moral standing and put its citizens in jeopardy, by launching a “precision” missile strike. Some, written by religious thinkers, emphasize that the humanitarian role will remain for us. What to do? How do we decide?
Often the most profound and compelling ideas are found in the fiction and poetry that frequently face bans by school boards and other public bodies and, thus, are denied to voters and future voters.
The fun of it is another reason to keep all books available. What boy, and not a few girls, doesn’t want to take off and float down the river? How many are moved by the soaring verse of Toni Morrison? The First World War, the centenary of which begins next year, will be the subject of countless histories. But will any of them tell us more about the horror of conflict than the poem “In Flanders” Fields?”
“We are the Dead. Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/Loved and were loved, and now we lie,/In Flanders fields.”
Bentley Gilbert is a Roseburg writer currently at work on a book for adults with low reading skills. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.