By Ellen Frankman
J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” has been called “blasphemous,” “foul” and “filthy,” John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” was barred in Ireland in the 1950s over objections to profanity and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” was banned by a Texas school district in 1996 because it “conflicted with their community values.”
These forbidden books and others were the subject of conversation on Friday, July 26 at John Jermain Memorial Library’s Lunchtime Brown Bag Book Discussion.
“I love the library and I love the programs that they have available and I thought this one was particularly provocative,” said Wendy Sherman who attended Friday’s discussion. “I also love a good argument,” she added with a smile.
But those in attendance were largely in agreement that few if any books deserve to be disallowed.
“I really don’t think we should ban anything,” said Pat Brandt who led the discussion. “I think the most sensitive issue with banned books is keeping them from children, and I think if children are bright enough to read the books we owe it to them to allow them to make their own decisions.”
Should anyone have say over the books read by children, it would be presumed to be parents; but Brandt says though her children are now grown there is nothing she would have prevented them from reading.
“As a parent it is more about what we do,” said Brandt. “I don’t use bad language, and I think they saw that. I think that most parents are aware of what kids read, and if they read something that is provocative, it will only be provocative so far as they can understand it.”
Both Brandt and Aracely Garcia agreed that many books address topics that parents shy away from. Furthermore, nearly any information or type of language that can be found in a book can also be found online, on television or in film.
“If they don’t read it themselves, they will get it somewhere else or from other kids,” said Garcia.
“Maybe the question here is not about banning books, it’s about the disintegration of the standards behind it all,” said Sherman, who recalled a time when saying the word “pregnant” on the popular television show “I Love Lucy” wasn’t allowed.
“You couldn’t even show a full sized bed on TV 60 years ago,” agreed Brandt.
But if foul language and sexually explicit content are already rife in modern media, then what of the more threatening present-day concerns surrounding violence and terrorism? It was revealed in April that the Boston bombers learned how to make pressure cooker bombs from online magazines that contained articles with titles like “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom.”
Wendy Sherman said at Friday’s meeting that a bomb-making book might be the only type of book she would like to see banned. Brandt disagreed that this sort of book should be off-limits, but conceded that a child checking out such a book from the library should be of note to both the librarian and perhaps the child’s parents.
Nevertheless the John Jermain Memorial Library remains steadfast in its commitment to uphold what they refer to as a “freedom to read.”
“I like telling our incoming staff that it is not that we are unbiased, but that the library makes room for all biases with the hope and belief that with enough information people will make the right decision,” said the library’s director Cathy Creedon.
“It is kind of shocking to think about books that have been banned that are classics,” said Creedon. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Earnest Hemingway, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman have all shared time on red lists both in the states, and in other countries worldwide. Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature and simultaneously found itself barred from classrooms across the country amidst parental complaints over its violence and sexual content.
“I would say that good literature, important literature, is by its very nature dangerous because it forces us to examine our own beliefs and to step up in our thinking to be better people,” said Creedon. “When people ban a book, I don’t think they are banning literature itself, but the threat that it causes to the status quo.”
Creedon and the John Jermain Memorial Library plan to continue their efforts to encourage the “freedom to read” and will celebrate Banned Books Week alongside the American Library Associate this fall.