A few years ago I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It’s a place of profound importance, so much so that the Washington D.C. Chief of Police requires new recruits to spend a half day there. During my visit I saw a special exhibition about book burnings by the Nazis. What astonished me was the date of the first one, May 10, 1933. Within 9 weeks of gaining power, Hitler staged a public burning of books, which he said were “Un-German”. Books by Jack London, H. G. Wells, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann, Freud, Einstein and many others were taken from the libraries and bookstores thrown on the bonfires. These demonstrations were public, the international press covered it, but the protests and outcries from other governments and peoples were muted. One of Hitler’s very first acts was a potent and intimidating and successful show, not attacking people but attacking ideas and thoughts in the form of the written word. From then on any ideas different from or dissenting from Nazi dogma would not be tolerated, and of course soon it would be the writers themselves and the readers and other deemed to be “Un-German” who would be thrown into the bonfires.
The last week in September is Banned Book Week here in the U.S.A. Displays and lists from the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Association describe attempts by individuals or groups across the years and across the country to have certain books or certain authors’ works censured, sequestered, banned, everything from photos of native women in the National Geographic to Huckleberry Finn to The Color Purple. All these proposals have two things in common: first, the person or group wanting a book banned fear the power of the written word to make people think, and second, they wish to make others conform to their own view of the world, their own truth and not to know other ideas. To accomplish that goal they must control access to the written word.
A lot of people just roll their eyes and scoff at these censoring requests, they say that those people are just fundamentalists, racial bigots, narrow-minded dummies, or even just scared soccer moms wanting to “protect” their kids from ugliness, so it’s nothing to worry about. I don’t agree. No, people or groups cross the line when they want to tell all of the rest of us, via the public library, the public school, the media, what is and what is not okay to look at and to read. It seems outlandish, over-the-top, right? But if what you read is so powerful and can make you question and perhaps think about other ways of being, other views of the world, people who want control must try to control what you and I look and read.
Now we have a person, running for the second office in the whole country, who as Mayor of her small town, tried to get the public librarian to withdraw certain titles, just because she requested it! We don’t know which books the Mayor wanted banned, we are told that her request was merely “hypothetical”. She just wanted to know how the librarian would respond to a request to ban certain books? In a way, that version of the story is even worse. The narrow-minded, calculated coldness of such a fishing expedition, chills me, I think I’d rather have the Mayor being a huff about some gay pastor’s book, than coolly looking for a method of suppression of whatever seemed “unsuitable”. And of course, when the librarian explained that the library had a serious evaluation policy and guidelines about acquiring books for the library and it was not based on one person’s point of view, even if that one person were the Mayor, that same Mayor tried to fire her.
I conclude that the Mayor has read only the Second Amendment of the Constitution, about the right to bear arms. Somehow, she skipped right over the First, yes, the First Amendment, in which our right to freedom of speech, and of the press shall be protected.
We must re-dedicate ourselves to defending those rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. We must have no censuring, no sequestering, no suppression, no banning, and no destruction of books.
For further reading about Banning books:
George Orwell 1984
Jorge Luis Borges FICCIONES
Ray Bradbury FARENHEIT 451
Ursula LeQuin VOICES
Fernando Baez A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF THE DESTRUCTION OF BOOKS