Banned Books Week celebrates freedom to read
Published: Monday, September 30, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 30, 2013 21:09
As she said the final words of the day, English professor April Kendra did not have the luxury of a silent theater. Beside the tent, posters flapped, threatening to break loose, while off to her left, construction hummed as it had all day. On the pathways surrounding the triangular swatch of grass she occupied, students walked by, some stopping, others only turning their heads slightly before continuing on their way. Those who were listening, including the several dozen students and faculty seated in front of Kendra, heard her proclaim that the right to read is one of the greatest freedoms Americans can claim.
The group was gathered for a reading celebrating The American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. For more than four hours, forty student and faculty volunteers took over the space between Memorial Hall and Morris Library to read short passages from their favorite banned books. Sponsored by the Department of English and the English Honor Society, Sigma Tau Delta, Wednesday’s Read-Out featured selections from books that have been banned or challenged for reasons including vulgar, racially-heated, violent or adult content.
Kendra, the new faculty advisor for Sigma Tau Delta, says she organized and hosted the reading with the help of society members and students in her American Literature classes. She says students were surprised by some of the books that have been questioned, including canonical novels and books as recent as Suzanne Collins’ series “The Hunger Games.”
“A lot of people are unaware that our freedom to read, to choose what we’re going to read, is always under negotiation,” Kendra says.
Kendra says the problem with banning books is not that parents are controlling what their children read, but that they are limiting which books are accessible to everyone. When communities take these books off of the shelves, they lose the opportunity to discuss whatever it is that makes the writing controversial, she says, adding that it is especially important for students to have these difficult conversations.
“We have to be willing to sort of say, ‘OK, I’m going to be uncomfortable,’ or ‘yes, this is painful to look at,’ or, ‘on occasion we’re going to disagree, but we hope that at least within the classroom we can be respectful, we can listen to the different perspectives,’” Kendra says.
Kendra passed out water bottles to the thirsty volunteers as they read everything from George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare “1984” to Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who!” The reading, which began at 10 a.m., stretched past its original 2 p.m. end point when the 19 students in Professor Jim Burns’ Honors freshmen English class massed behind the podium to read sections from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Stepping forward one by one, Burns’ students took turns reading small sections, building to the poem’s final, rhythmic refrain of “I’m with you in Rockland.”
Burns says he knew he wanted to get involved when he saw the flyer for the Read-Out. This semester he chose to focus his Honors English class around the topic of banned books, including Howl, so he says the event seemed like a natural tie-in to class discussions and assignments. His students spent class time planning the order in which they would read on Monday, but the reading was otherwise unrehearsed, Burns says.
Burns notes the distinction between banning books and limiting access. When his son was young, Burns says he realized he had to rearrange his library to be more kid-friendly, placing books with adult content on higher shelves. Whenever his son would ask why a particular volume was transplanted, he says he made sure to explain the decision. Banning books takes away this chance to discuss what is inappropriate, he says.
“When you limit access there’s always a conversation involved,” Burns says. “If there’s a book that I don’t want you read, you have the right to ask me why and I have the right to explain myself.”
Many of the participants and attendees of the Read-Out were students in Kendra’s American Literature classes. This fall, Kendra says she structured her courses around the theme of “engaging with the Other,” which she says fits well with the different perspectives that banned books offer.
One of Kendra’s student readers was junior Ethan Clark, who says he chose to read a selection from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” a mid-century novel that focuses on the narrator’s sexual infatuation with a 12-year-old girl. Clark says Nabokov’s novel is a perfect example of how adult topics can be meaningful in a literary context.
“I think that all information is good information as long as it doesn’t bring people to hurt each other,” Clark says. “So if you can deal with very real issues like abuse in a literary context and educate people in that way, then I think it can have very positive real effects.”
While Kendra says she understands that parents can be overwhelmed by the content available to their children in the media and in books, she says reading books that deal with intense themes can prepare children for real life experiences.
“I certainly believe that ignorance is not a protection,” Kendra says. “You don’t want your child to be abused, obviously, that’s a terrible thing, but not to allow them to read about somebody else’s experiences with sexual abuse may actually make them vulnerable because they won’t recognize when something happens that’s it’s wrong and they ought to tell somebody.”
This is the kind of lesson Kendra says she wanted students to take away from the readings. While many of the faces in the audience were members of Kendra’s and Burns’ English classes, Kendra says the event drew passing students who became animated when they saw some of the banned books that were displayed on the information table. Others watched silently from under trees, or from benches in front of the library.