Happy Banned Books Week!

In case you hadn’t heard, it’s Banned Books Week!

Every year book bloggers celebrate the power of the written word and remind others to fight against censorship…because despite what you may think, banning books is still alive and well, even in America where we’re supposed to value the freedom of speech and print.

Just a few days ago, NPR reported that a North Carolina county voted to ban Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which discusses the nuances of black identity formation and the battles for racial equality. Apparently the state failed to see the irony behind removing from view a story about an individual’s social invisibility.

It’s news like NPR’s which makes me grateful for living in a more liberal state, since my California high school wasn’t about to let a little violence and incest get in the way of providing its students with a culturally diverse and historically meaningful education.

I’ve brought up the topic of censorship before, like when I asked whether young adult fiction was too adult and whether books should be rated like movies. I, like almost every other book blogger, sides with the First Amendment. But in case the good ol’ Constitution isn’t reason enough, let me spell it out for you:

Not all speech is smart, but it should be free (Image via Thinking Right Blog)

1.     It is vital that we challenge reinforcement theory. Mass media scholars suggest that our egos are so sensitive that we’d rather hide behind the bubble wrap of our previously held beliefs than risk coming across something that makes us uncomfortable.

However, learning from different perspectives forces us to re-evaluate our opinions and our relationships with other people–which is a good thing! We could all use some empathy by reading a mile of someone else’s journey.

I’m not saying that you have to agree with the Westboro Baptist Church, but they have the right to spout off their nonsense. Don’t like it? Speak up and make your voice the one that your local politician hears the loudest.

Because it’s only Facebook that counts? (Image credit to ToothpasteForDinner.com)

2.     Censorship is a slippery slope. As I learned from Reading Lolita in Tehran, banning books on the surface might seem a minor infringement of personal freedom, but usurping control of what thoughts are deemed worthy of publishing will ultimately lead to the loss of many more rights.

And what’s even scarier than a country like 1970’s Iran actively fighting against revolutionary restrictions and failing is a society no longer interested in fighting at all, as seen in Fahrenheit 451, another frequently banned book. In that satire, people became so obsessed with television that they didn’t even care that the totalitarian government banned books. Their tiny attention spans couldn’t be bothered.

Life lessons courtesy of Grand Theft Auto (Image via GTA 5 Nation)

3.     Banning books is hypocrisy at its worst. Other media are often censored, but how many movies, music videos, or video games are outright banned? Sure, we can label things explicit or give them “R” ratings, but we don’t seem all that concerned about enforcement.

I mean, no one batted an eyelash when the latest Grand Theft Auto, a video game in which killing cops and prostitutes is encouraged, earned over $1 billion in three days. I highly doubt all those copies will be played by only those 18 and up.

And let’s not gloss over Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (or Miley Cyrus’ VMA’s rendition of the song). It seems that the majority of folks don’t mind the promotion of rape culture and exploitation of women as long as the tune is catchy.

But did you know that Catcher in the Rye was banned, among other complaints, over Holden Caulfield’s dealings with a prostitute? Or that Beloved and Their Eyes Were Watching God were considered too sexual?

I can’t stand the double standard that sex is harmless when it’s allegedly just for fun or to sell a product, but when it’s depicted in a context where people might actually learn something of value from it, it’s branded as too inappropriate.

The take-away? I’m not trying to be a prude or a buzz-kill. In fact, I’m proposing that all media, not matter how controversial or offensive, should be protected from censorship. As adults, it’s our individual right to decide if we want to read a book or not.

And as for the kids, if you’re sooooo concerned about Little Timmy reading To Kill A Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

It’s called home-schooling. You’re welcome.

Final note: Please spread awareness of this issue by educating yourself on the most challenged books and where they’re being removed. Celebrate this week by following #bannedbooksweek on Twitter and checking out Google Hangouts with banned authors!

Masterpiece Monday: Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison (Image via Wikipedia)

Rating: 4 out of 5

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought I’d review an African-American novel for Masterpiece Monday. Unfortunately, African-Americans and people of color in general are vastly underrepresented in the literary canon–and in my own blog. I hope to feature more ethnic writers in the future, and I encourage recommendations from you guys! (Well, except Toni Morrison…I still have the bad taste of Beloved in my mouth from high school).

So I chose Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, because it was published right before King’s March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It also has the most easy-to-remember first line ever, which I quoted in my AP Lit essay: “I am an invisible man.”

Indeed, the protagonist is never named, but he secretly lives in New York in the basement of a whites-only apartment building, which is illuminated by 1,369 lights from a power company. The man narrates his story, which includes his time spent at an all-black college, his job at a paint factory known for its white paints, and his shock treatments while recovering from a boiler explosion.

Eventually, he is recruited into the Brotherhood in Harlem, and he must struggle with the various members trying to make a difference in the black community. Although he’s often disillusioned by his fellow African-Americans, he remains determined to incite political change and overcome his metaphorical invisibility.

Even though this novel has scenes that are hard to stomach (especially Trueblood’s incestuous relationship with his daughter), Invisible Man is beautifully written. Ellison’s distinct voice tells what it was like to live in the mid-20th century as an African-American man. He doesn’t sugarcoat the racism in America, but he also doesn’t let one perspective dominate the conversation. Moderate and radical black activists are represented in the story, as well as those who submit to whites to simply get by in life.

Ellison also makes many historical and literary allusions, from everybody to Louis Armstrong, to H.G. Wells, from Marcus Garvey to Homer. But for someone named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, these cultural references seem to run in the family.

What people like Ellison and MLK Jr. demonstrate is that there is no reason to speak for somebody, when they can speak just as eloquently for themselves. I realize that I can never know what life as an African-American is like, whether the year’s 1950 or 2012, but I thank black writers for sharing a piece of them with the world, so we can learn from one another and encourage love for all human beings, no matter the color of their skin.

Favorite Quote: “I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.”