Good news for book lovers; bad news for censorship.
Last Sunday (24th September) marked the beginning of Banned Books Week, an annual campaign promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International to celebrate intellectual freedom and raise awareness of individuals who are “persecuted because of the writings that they produce, circulate or read.”
Hundreds of books are “challenged” – an attempt to remove them from libraries or the curriculum –every year over content. Four of the most commonly challenged books in the United States are on the new GCSE English Literature syllabus, while eight are on this year’s A Level syllabus. Everyone who’s done their GCSEs has read “Of Mice and Men”, and yet none of it has done us any damage. Our eyes didn’t fall out of our head, our minds have not been corrupted by the senseless horrors of rural 1930s America and we’ve moved on with our lives.
So why are so many books challenged every year?
The most frequently cited reasons are that the material is “sexually explicit”, contains “offensive language” or is “unsuited to any age group”. Perhaps this is understandable. After all, there are some things that are undeniably unsuited for certain audiences – no one wants to hear that The Exorcist has just been added to the Year 8 syllabus. Many critics of Banned Books Week even argue that despite its name, most of the books highlighted are merely challenged, not banned.
However, there is a more nefarious side to these challenges. Half of the Top Ten Challenged Books of 2016 were challenged for reasons that included “LGBT content”, which provokes a controversial discussion over human rights and what constitutes ‘inappropriate’, an issue that Amnesty International is eager to highlight. Each year on its website, it documents “focus cases”, which show that while these challenges may not seem a big deal to us, such attitudes have real implications around the world where individuals are reportedly killed, incarcerated, or otherwise harassed by national authorities for the material they produce.
We also have to consider the issue of censorship – who gets to decide what is acceptable to read and why? Where do we draw the line? Do these challenges violate our freedom of speech, and where will it end? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but if there’s one thing we should take away from Banned Books Week, it’s to appreciate the freedoms we have and fight for those without.