Banned Books: Don’t Read This!

Posted on 28 September 2010 by Karen Risch

Okay, read this, but please be sneaky about it. Oh, what the hell. Go ahead and read it all out in the open. It’s pretty short—and it’s not sexually explicit, offensive, or inappropriate to the age of my intended audience. Namely, you.

Although to ensure lots of people read this, I should make it raunchy, in your face, and out of line—and then get some group to make a big stink about it.

I’m not saying anything new by observing that whenever people are told they “shouldn’t” read something, it becomes the very thing they want to read. It’s true for me: tell me a book is boring or badly written, and it might give me pause; tell me it’s shocking or strange or hard to get through because the ideas are so foreign or it’s too anything, and I’m the first one to bust out my flashlight to read under the covers. Figuratively, of course. Now that I’m a woman of a certain age, I don’t have to hide my books, though sometimes it’s prudent to wait till after my five-year-old son goes to bed.

“You can’t read that.”
“Oh,
Yes I Can!”

In honor of Banned Books Week, held every year the last week of September, I’m reflecting on the only book I remember my parents saying was off limits in our house, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr. Perhaps it goes without saying that I read this autobiography, published the year I was born, surreptitiously when I was in sixth grade (rebel!) and then told Mom and Dad about it, proud of my fait accompli.

To their credit, their only response was, “Do you have any questions? Anything you’d like to talk about?”

I didn’t. Although I do have one question now: Why that book? Of all the stuff in our home library, why was that one forbidden fruit? I could make some guesses: there was the scene where he lost his eye (impaled on a pointy decoration in the center of his steering wheel—awful), some bits about his sex life (I don’t even remember), and drinking, and converting to Judaism. And then the guy was black, of course, and he married a white woman at a time when that was not at all common. But these weren’t the kinds of things to make my folks blanch, normally.

I’ll never know why. But it makes a point: censorship is all about the censors, has next to nothing to do with the book or the reader.

What has been your experience with censorship? Has anyone ever told you not to read something? Or told you not to write something? How did you respond?

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9 responses to Banned Books: Don’t Read This!

  • Catherine Spear says:

    It’s a longstanding philosophical argument about freedom and license, and how we as a culture intend to balance the two. If we can discuss and debate in the open, limiting the argument to the issues, I have great faith that a community can reach a workable consensus. But that’s one powerful “if”. We haven’t shown a lot of grace in resolving our issues in the public square lately.

  • Joan says:

    This is so timely. My daughter is a high school Freshman and her Honors English teacher pointed the class to http://www.skokie.lib.il.us/s_teens/tn_books/tn_booklists/banned.asp and told each student choose a book from this list, read it, and write an essay on why they believe the book was placed on the banned book list. Of course, this assignment included the requirement that a parent sign a permission slip approving that the child was allowed to read chosen book. Look through the list – treasures! I told my daughter to read EVERY book on the list.

    I’ve been very fortunate – my parents were big readers and I was encouraged to read anything and everything and then ask questions. That’s my stance with my kids. READ IT and ask questions.

  • Cindy says:

    I honestly don’t remember being told that certain books were banned. I rode my bike to the public library once or twice a month and brought home a stack of books to read and retreated to my room. Not that I was reading classic literature when I was a teen, but no one really paid attention to the books I brought home–at least, not to the best of my knowledge!

  • Erin says:

    My high school English teacher put up a poster for Banned Book Week many years ago, several of the books were sex manuals. So how about The Joy of Sex? Or the Joy of Gay Sex? Are these OK? Funnily my parents had the Joy of Sex and they put on top of the bureau with the thought that when we did notice it we would be tall and perhaps old enough to sneak a peak. Many of the lists of banned books are “banned classic books” or “banned books for teens”. My parents did not control what I read, but since I read on a post high school level in elementary school I did end up reading books that were way beyond my emotional age.

  • Karen Risch says:

    Thank you all for your comments!

    @Joan, love the list! No doubt your daughter will grow up loving books.

    @Erin, I’m wondering if you think reading beyond your emotional age was fine or detrimental. I was in the same boat, and though I believe it challenged my parents (who had to answer questions about sperm and such when I was in kindergarten because I’d been allowed to choose books from the “big kids” section of the library and got one on guinea pigs with a full chapter on reproduction), I don’t think it did me any harm.

    I suspect that certain things just went over my head, while others made me curious. Certainly, Sammy Davis, Jr.’s autobiography was beyond my full understanding in sixth grade. Probably just as much beyond my emotional grasp: one of my fourth-grade friends introduced me to those ridiculously large bodice-ripper books, and I tore through them–again, no harm. Incidentally, she’s a published writer, too.

    Heck, I read plenty of books in college that were still beyond me. Put one in the win column for my professors.

    (Do I think Joy of Sex and Joy of Gay Sex are “okay”? You mean in a library, or to share with kids? Or what?)

    • Erin says:

      Karen,

      I do not think reading things beyond one’s emotional level is a problem if you have parents who you feel comfortable talking to about issues and can deal with a 10 year old whose reading has pushed her into a transcendental crisis. :)

      About the sex books, I was making the point that even the lists of banned books are censored in some ways as the Joy of Gay Sex and Sex in general and other very explicit books are indeed challenged but not listed. There are books out there that may cross the line for each of us as far as what we would encourage our elementary age children to read. Obviously the books listed for your friends teenage daughter are great books.

      Ben would like me to read aloud from Star Wars books that are written for teen and adult fans. I told him that when he can read them for himself he can read them.

      • Karen Risch says:

        You’re so smart! I love that you allow Ben the freedom to read whatever books he *can* read, within reason, I’m sure.

        As for sex manuals, I don’t think they belong in school libraries (you got me–I guess I’m in favor of some censorship, and I doubt many would argue with that), but regular libraries, yes. Props to your parents for leaving a good one on the highboy. :-)

        Some day, you’ll have to tell about your 10-year-old transcendental crisis.

  • Paul says:

    @Karen The title “Banned Books: Don’t Read This!” made me read this. I don’t know but wherever I read don’t read it I start reading.

    Am the only guy like this ? lol

    Paul

    • Karen Risch says:

      :-) Nope, Paul, you are most certainly NOT the only guy like this. Now don’t read anything else on this blog, don’t take advantage of any of the free stuff, and certainly don’t buy any of the books or products we feature here.

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