“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking,” says one character ‘Norwegian Wood,’ a novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
This is a common argument against book censorship and banning– such books lead to new ways of thinking.
Banned Books Week, which was held last week, is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. The freedom to read is the freedom to think is the freedom to speak is the freedom to write without fear of censorship.
“Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries,” states the event’s website BannedBooksWeek.org. “Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information.”
The annual celebration is held to bring attention to the harms of censorship. The theme for this year’s event was: Censorship is a dead end. Find your freedom to read!
Each year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the most challenged books. 2019’s top ten challenged books were: ‘George’ by Alex Gino, ‘Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out’ by Susan Kuklin, ‘A Day in the Life of Marlon Brando’ by Jill Twiss and illustrated by EG Keller, ‘Sex is a Funny Word’ by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth, ‘Prince and Knight’ by Daniel Haack and illustrated by Stevie Lewis, ‘I am Jazz’ by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings and illustrated by Shelagh McNichols, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood, ‘Drama’ written and illustrated by Rania Telgemeier, ‘Harry Potter’ series by J. K. Rowling, ‘And Tango Makes Three’ by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole.
As this is generally a week of events and displays at local libraries whose doors are closed due to COVID, the Mesabi Tribune (MT) reached out to several individuals to discuss Banned Books Week including Minnesota author Lorna Landvik (LL), Director of the University of Minnesota Press Doug Armato (DA) and Executive Director of the Arrowhead Library System Jim Weikum (JW).
MT– What does Banned Books Week mean to you?
LL– The freedom to read! To be able to decide for yourself what you want to read!
DA– As a publisher, our interest is in connecting writers and readers — to put them in conversation. Any attempt, from whatever political perspective, to stop those conversations is a fundamental challenge to the work we do. I don’t agree with every book we publish and to me that’s a sign of the health of our publishing program; in fact, often my own ideas and beliefs are challenged by the work we do, and I’m grateful for that.
JW– For many librarians, Banned Books Week is a reminder of some of the basic principles of our profession, and the service we provide. The "Freedom to read" statement from the American Library Association <http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/freedomreadstatement> really talks about what it means to live in a democracy.
MT– Have you ever read a banned book? Why or why not?
LL– I read books for all sorts of reasons — to learn about people, places and subjects, to be moved, entertained, to be provoked, to be placated, etc. So yes, I’ve read lots of banned books. If a book doesn’t appeal to me, I’ll put it down on my own — I don’t need a committee to put it down for me.
DA– Looking at the American Library Association’s annual lists of the most challenged books (http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10), I’ve certainly read my share of books that people later tried to ban, from Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ to Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ to Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Nickeled and Dimed’ to Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ to Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. All those books, along with many others, have helped me think through some of the complex issues that are part of being human. Why would we deny that opportunity to others, especially young people curious to understand the society and the world they’ll inherit? Is it that we don’t trust them?
JW–I've read a number of books that have appeared on "banned books" lists. I honestly never read anything with its "banned" status in mind. I read ‘Catch-22’ in (I think) 8th Grade. Banning books has always puzzled me as such actions pretty much guarantee increased interest.
MT– How did it feel reading a book you knew had been banned or censored?
LL– ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was a book I read in the eighth grade— a book that really solidified for me the goal of being a writer. Its story, characters, style of writing — everything about it opened so many doors. Later when I found out it had been banned in places I thought, ‘What? This book can teach us so much on so many levels!'
MT– Has anything you've written/published been censored or banned? If so, what, where and when? How did that feel?
LL– I don’t know if any of my books have been banned large-scale; regarding my most recent book, ‘Chronicles of a Radical Hag (With Recipes)’ I have heard from several readers who did not like that my main character had opinions that didn’t match their own.
DA– We’re lucky to be based in Minnesota which has such a long tradition of open debate and free speech, not to mention a love for books. When we hear a complaint about one of our books, we take it seriously and often respond personally. Sometimes those have even turned into good conversations.
MT– As director of ALS, what do you consider before agreeing to purchase a book for area public libraries? Are considerations on possibly censored material given? If a topic does arise, how do you address it?
JW– We only very rarely purchase items for local libraries. However, a requirement for a public library to be a member of ALS is for each library to have a set of policies approved by the local library board, including a Materials Selection Policy. Such a policy typically serves as a road map for choosing library materials <https://www.alslib.info/about-us/policies/> Such policies typically address the process for "Reconsideration" of library materials which outlines the steps that members of the public need to take to 'challenge' an item (or items) owned by their local library.
MT– As a publisher, what do you consider before agreeing to publish a book? Are considerations on possibly censored material given? If a topic does arise, how do you address it?
DA– We work with authors to make sure they aren’t writing something that will harm people as individuals, invade their privacy, or say things that are demonstrably untrue. Before we publish, a manuscript is read by experts in the book's subject area to help make sure it is accurate and responsible and then submitted for approval by a panel of University of Minnesota faculty. In terms of censored material, we consider the audience for which each book is intended: our children’s books have different standards than those we have for adult history or memoirs or art books. When we think about whether some people might be put-off or even offended by a particular work, we try to weigh that against the interests of the readers who are looking for exactly that perspective. Books are personal for readers -- not every book is for everyone — and the act of banning them is like walking into someone’s house and stopping a conversation they’re having with a friend: it is an invasion of privacy.
MT– Should people be allowed to publish anything they want?
LL– People can publish anything they want — it’s my power as a reader to choose whether or not to read what they’ve published.
DA– There are laws that protect people against being libeled or slandered by an author and also state and Federal laws against obscenity. Beyond those, I personally wouldn’t publish a book that was meant to incite hatred or violence.
But a book that makes people think? Those I think we need more of.
JW–The question about being able to publish "anything" is probably best left to a Constitutional scholar. I won't pretend that there aren't some materials that a library would not borrow for a person, but I honestly don't think those questions come up very often.
MT– You have freedom of speech. You also have a loyal audience, especially here on the Iron Range. What responsibility do you have when it comes to promoting a certain message?
LL– The only responsibility I feel as a writer is to tell as good a story as I can: to bring to life my characters and to make readers care about them, so much so that they might laugh and cry along with them.
DA– We have a responsibility to publish works that tell the truth. Being part of the University of Minnesota means we verify the knowledge in the books we publish. And sometimes that knowledge changes along with our times and as researchers discover new facts about our world. So in publishing a new edition of the late John Tester's ‘Minnesota’s Natural Heritage’ this year, the authors took account of the severe changes to our state’s climate — and with it our wildlife and plant life — over the past quarter century since the first edition appeared. It is a worrying account if you love our glorious state.
MT– Is banning books right? Should books be censored?
LL– Again, what committee gets to decide? Parents can choose books for their own children, but in my view don’t have the right to choose books for other children. Unfortunately, there will always be a market, however small, for books I feel cause harm — violence-promoting books, for example — but it’s not up to me to tell anyone they can’t buy them.
DA– No, books shouldn’t be banned or censored. If they contain slander or libel or make threats, that’s a matter for the law. People should have the freedom to make their own decisions about what they read and what their own young children read. You need to trust people to make up their own minds about the world around them.
JW–I think history has shown us that banning a book doesn't have the impact some think it will. Ideas don't go away if a book is removed from a library. Having concerns about a book or some of its content can open the door to conversation and dialogue. To me, that's a far more effective route.
MT– The COVID pandemic is causing great upheavals and changes in our society. Is it more or less important now to read/not read banned books?
LL– What’s really shocking is how many wonderful, thought-provoking books have made ‘banned books’ lists. Any book that takes you out of your own world and helps you to understand someone else’s isn’t a book that should be banned.
DA– Well, nothing is more socially distanced than reading a book. We’ve seen very strong interest in our books since the pandemic broke out. Reading of all kinds, including banned books, helps keep us connected to our world.
JW– As noted above, books can be the way to open doors of dialogue. Reading a banned book can set the table for open conversation, and maybe more understanding, about what people are objecting to in terms of its content.
MT– Are you currently working on anything?
LL– Yep, working on a novel I hope to be finishing in the next couple weeks…
DA–I hope so. We love working with Lorna. Fiction and memoirs are the creative side of what we do, and we’re always looking for unique voices around the state. Lorna is as unique as they come.
JW– Here at ALS, we are putting a lot of thought into re-imagining things like library programming (specifically, our "Legacy" activities) in a COVID world. How do we do programming when we can't gather people together in one place? + We are ALWAYS excited to hear about new works from Lorna Landvik. She's a Minnesota treasure and her books are always in demand.
MT– What are you reading these days?
LL– At the beginning of the pandemic, I found solace in reading some big fat James Michener books; also read a lot of thrillers, which seemed a good escape from the fears of the real world. I also really enjoyed ‘The Keeper of Lost Things’ by Ruth Hogan and am now reading the deeply satisfying ‘The Night Watchman’ by Louise Erdrich.
DA– I just finished reading ‘Lost Illusions,’ a novel by the 19th Century French author Honore de Balzac that we just published in a new translation by a University of St Thomas professor. Balzac was banned and censored in both England and the U.S. — there’s even a line in ‘The Music Man’ about how he is part of the “trouble in River City.” And as it is mostly about how publishers cheat and exploit writers, I guess if anyone had a reason to want to ban it, it would be me! But I found it a lot of fun and also revealing.
JW– Outside of work, I tend to be more of an audiobook listener. I recently finished the new Daniel Silva book (the Gabriel Allon character) and am now listening to Bill Bryson's ‘The Body’ (courtesy of Overdrive). I was delighted with Christopher Moore's ‘Shakespeare for Squirrels’ (his titles typically need a parental advisory!) and I have several titles from Audible that I want to get to. Given the season, I expect to be reading ‘Room On The Broom’ over and over to grandkids.