It’s a bit of coincidence that I started reading Charles Bukowski during Banned Books Week.
After all, this is a guy who had a column called “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” and who somewhat famously responded to a public library in the Netherlands after it took his book “Tales of Ordinary Madness” off its shelves. In the typewritten letter he called censorship “the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real, and I can’t vent any anger against them.”
That was in 1985, but the point still rings true.
“Anything that challenges our preconceptions is going to make us feel uncomfortable,” says Alison Mandaville, an assistant professor of English education at Fresno State, who often talks with would-be teachers about the acceptance of certain books in classrooms. “Those are precisely the books and poetry we should expose ourselves to.”
Banned Books Week, which runs through Saturday, Oct. 1, was launched in 1982 as a way to talk about and keep track of the books being challenged in schools, bookstores and libraries. Each year it is celebrated in those same libraries, schools and bookstores with a series of themed events – like the Banned Books Read Out, where people live read excerpts from their favorite banned or challenged books.
According to the American Library Association, 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 – books with titles like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Moby-Dick; or The Whale,” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” Or, books like “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “Harry Potter” (the entire series).
“There’s a whole array of books that you wouldn’t imagine would be banned,” says Misha Hacke, the teen programming librarian at the Fresno County Public Library, which also hosts crafting sessions at its branches throughout the week where patrons can make their own “Banned Book” bookmarks.
Many of the challenged and banned books tend to be targeted toward younger readers, Hacke says. She concedes that some books may not be wholly appropriate for certain audiences and says the library has a system for dealing with that, but freedom of information is something that gets a lot of talk in library circles. These kind of challenges impact the free flow of ideas and concepts.
And that can have an impact on social justice, Mandaville says.
To her original point, a high percentage of challenged books tend to come from minority voices and express issues affecting minority communities. If you need proof, consider these three book titles from the 2015 list: “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out,” “Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan,” and “Two Boys Kissing.” Native American poet/author Sherman Alexie has consistently found his books on the challenged list over the years.
5,099 challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom between 2000 and 2009.
Reading these kinds of books can be beneficial, says Jennifer Crow, curator of the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Childrens Literature, in that it gives the reader a sense of shared experience. There’s even a term for it: bibliotherapy.
“It’s therapeutic to know someone has gone through this,” she says.
And while it’s easy enough to dismiss this as any kind of real censorship – after all, we live in the United States and it’s not as if the government is blocking books from being published – these kind of challenges can have real effect, she says. They can get books removed from libraries and summer reading lists.
Mandaville remembers being in grade school and watching as a teacher confiscated a book from another student. The scene stuck with her as an example of how censorship can play out and why Banned Books Week is worth note.
“It’s a great week to think about keeping an open mind. What are we potentially shutting out of our lives.”
Banned Books Read Out
- 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 1
- Betty Rodriguez Regional Library, 3040 N. Cedar Ave.
- Free to participate
- 559-600-9245, www.fresnolibrary.org