Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Read a Banned Book

Every year, the American Library Association promotes Banned Books Week, which tricks kids into reading literature under the guise of being rebellious.

I'm not saying this as a criticism. I, myself taught one of a dozen sections of Banned Books and Novel Ideas at my old university, helping students fulfill a fine arts credit and feel like a literary bad-asses. But, looking around at my colleagues' syllabi, I realized that everything has been banned and nothing was. There were books, certainly, like Harry Potter, that had been banned by some fundamental evangelical librarian in some small town in Ohio, and there had been works that have been "soft banned," like when South Carolina's House of Representatives tried to cut funding because Fun House, a graphic novel about coming of age as a young lesbian was required reading for incoming freshmen, but outright bans have been rare in this country. I ended up taking an international approach with my reading list, looking at banned books from the U.K., Germany, El Salvador, South Africa, Iran and Vietnam.

The bans are different in the United States.

I once had lunch with a friend of mine who I admire continually, and we got on the subject of books we pulled off the shelf when we were too young for them.
"I read Anthem," I said, laughing, "when I was ten just because it was skinny."

The mood suddenly turned sober.

"You've read Anthem?" she said with distaste. "What were your parents doing owning Anthem?"

"Well," I said, realizing I had somehow mistepped. "They were in college during the Cold War, and they never sold back any of their books--I'm not sure it's a thing people did back then."

But it bothered me. Look, I don't agree with Ayn Rand politically one bit, but preteens reading Anthem will find all of the hallmarks of classic YA distopia, complete with the insistence that I Am The Special One. It's juvenile philosophy, which is why most of us grow out of it, but reading it didn't make me a fascist any more than reading Fun Home created a generation of lesbians in South Carolina. What's disturbing is that, culturally, we are uncomfortable with listening to--or reading--someone we don't agree with.

Foucault's most famous, probably, for the idea of the social panopticon. The panopticon was a jail system that formulated a couple of hundred years ago, where the prisoners are always being watched and judged by someone standing in the middle of the jail, and by each other. Foucault pointed out that we are always policing each other. In fact, he expanded carcerality to include not just policemen, but schoolteachers, preachers and anyone in the society who is watching each other. This, not outright bans, is where I feel books in America become banned.

Physicial books, in the digital age, have become markers of who we are, as much a signifier of position and rank as the pictures on our walls and the neighborhoods we live in. I've never put E.D. Hirshe's book about cultural literacy on my bookshelf at work because I didn't want my colleagues to think I was racist.  Hirshe's racism is itself debatable, but I didn't want to be guilty by association. Having a physical book on your shelf has become a badge of What You Believe, rather than a sign of What You've Read.

Most of my examples here have been about more conservative books, the reverse is true, too: I can read books by people I disagree with, even read them attentively, and it will not necessarily radicalize me. In fact, how can I know I disagree with them until I read their book and figure out what, exactly, it is that I disagree with.

So what I'm saying is, this Banned Book season (which also overlaps with Election season), maybe read something that your group, whoever they are, would deplore. And it's even okay if you deplore it, too. You don't have to like it, you don't even have to finish it, but you do need to understand it.

It could be memoir of someone you don't agree with (I read a biography of Golda Meir in high school that I still think about sometimes when I think about Zionism), or fiction that promotes a philosophy you don't ascribe to (I adore Turgenov and Poe, but I'm not nearly so gloomy), but go out there and find something someone tells you not to read and read it.