Reading, Not Banning Books

Last month an easily offended, over-protective mother found a passage she really didn’t like in contemporary author Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere. Her complaints ultimately ended up getting the book taken out of the curriculum, at least temporarily, in Alomogordo High School in New Mexico.

As a result, all of the kids at this school are banned from reading a book that has been part of the school’s English department syllabus since 2004. It is absolutely unfair, narrow-minded and, frankly, stupid that one single person gets to make that judgment call.

Neverwhere is about a man who helps a girl in a desperate situation, even though it has dire consequences for his own life. He does the right thing, even though it’s difficult. The book also deals with themes of compassion, loyalty, friendship and feelings of invisibility. The offensive passage begins with: “The man had his hand inside the woman’s [sweater] and was moving it around enthusiastically, a lone [traveler] discovering an unexplored continent.” This passage that one New Mexico mother took such offense to outlines the main character’s loneliness and invisibility as he sits on a bench next to two lovers who are unable to see him.

Gaiman’s book is perfect for high school kids because it’s more fun than Shakespeare and it deals with themes that many of them can relate to. It’s written by a “cool,” messy-haired author with a large Twitter and Tumblr presence. His books are the perfect combination of something that high school students can learn from and something that they can get excited about reading.

It’s hard enough to get high school kids to pick up a book, and taking away the ones they are able to get excited about is only going to make this problem worse. In a recent lecture for the Reading Agency, a reading and literacy charity group based in London, Gaiman expressed his feelings that “well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like—the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”

Banning books with uncomfortable themes and taking away books from kids who have a desire to read is one of the most despicable practices I can think of. Pretending sex, violence, profanity and other uncomfortable subjects don’t exist by pushing away books that include them does not make sex, violence and profanity go away. They’re going to exist whether we talk about them or not. It’s much better bringing those topics out into the open and have adult conversations about them. It’s the only way that a society can learn and move forward to a better future.

Banned Books Week, a week dedicated to reading and raising awareness about banned books, is most definitely a step in the right direction. It takes place the fourth week in September every year. Since 1982, when Banned Books Week began, more than 11,200 books have been challenged, all because some people are too ignorant to see past their own narrow-minded world views.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was the number-one most banned book during the early 2000s, mostly because conservative religious groups took offense to the magic portrayed in the book. Toni Morrison’s Beloved was banned for being sexually explicit, violent and having overt religious views, while Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most challenged books of all time because it is “racially insensitive,” “oppressive” and “perpetuates racism.”

What the book challengers don’t understand is that these books have the power to teach, inspire and transform their readers into more compassionate and thoughtful people. Violence, religion, racism and difficult adolescences are all a part of America’s past and present. Isn’t it better that we talk about these things openly and discover why certain themes are uncomfortable and what we can learn from them? If the things these books brought up were easy to talk about, how would we ever progress as a society? How are we going to grow and change if we only read books that are safe?

Obviously not all books are suitable for all people and age groups, but one easily offended group should not be allowed to make the decision about what is and is not appropriate. One ridiculous mom in New Mexico should not get to take away a book for an entire high school because she didn’t like it. I had friends growing up who weren’t allowed to read Harry Potter because their parents thought it promoted anti-Christian themes, but that didn’t stop me from reading them until the covers fell off, and it shouldn’t have. I learned a great deal from those books. They taught me about friendship, bravery and compassion and, most important of all, they inspired me to pick up more books and keep reading. If somebody had banned them from my library, I would not be the person I am today.

Books often raise issues that are hard to talk about, but that’s the point. Banning books, locking them away and pretending they don’t exist only makes us a more afraid and ignorant citizenry, and that’s exponentially more terrifying than profanity, sexuality and violence ever could be.