This week is Banned Book Week, one of those observances that never loses its relevance. For proof, turn to the list of frequently challenged books, as charted by the American Library Association. It is a gloomy reminder of fear and small-mindedness, true. But the list also offers hope. America’s Most Challenged has moved beyond perennials like The Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn to include celebrated contemporary novels like Persepolis, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Yes, the young still read!
The reasons behind efforts to ban books, however, are anything but contemporary. In my youth, a time of clay tablets and titles like The Hardy Boys: Mystery of the Missing Hittite Chariot, parents and other divers alliances of busybodies most often aimed their ire at depictions of sex and drugs, the top bugaboos of the 1970s. Not just that stuff, though. One group tried to ban Flowers for Algernon because “it made a big deal over being retarded,” a criticism on a par with banning a dictionary because “it made a big deal over spelling correctly.”
Sex and drugs remain top scourges of the book banning industry. (Sexual content is the most frequent reason schools ban Flowers for Algernon.) But today’s popular complaints also include “anti-family,” “pro-sex education,” “pro-homosexual agenda,” and the always thorny “contains controversial issues.”
Throughout the week, we will blog on various aspects of the banned book issue. UIP, as a publisher, has more skin in this game than most. Like most academic publishing shops we put out a fair number of books that are intended to rock various boats, challenge taboos, and explode conventional thinking. Many of them present a viewpoint that fits into one or more of the categories mentioned in the previous paragraph. They are the kinds of books that give people “funny ideas,” albeit not as funnily as Slaughterhouse-5.
We’re not congratulating ourselves here. We believe in the mission, sure. It serves a purpose in a democratic society. It adds voices we find necessary, timely, and learned, though others may not. We also know we play the long game. The ideas in one of UIP’s academic titles will very possibly need years to percolate, to be challenged and added to and refined, before finally breaking through to the mainstream and changing attitudes. That polite society no longer uses the word retarded in cavalier and cruel ways—nor as a medical term—owes something to the fact millions of us read Flowers for Algernon and thought, you know, that word ain’t cool.
Ideas, if nothing else, are a first step toward making the world a little bit better. A book is an idea given elaboration, a message in a bottle flung into stormy seas with little more than hope that it may do some good, effect some rescue. We just happen to think anyone should get to toss that bottle, and that everyone has the right to pull the cork when it washes ashore.