Let me begin this blog post with the probably obvious announcement – especially considering our Nancy Pearl action figure above – that librarians are super heroes. Perhaps you already know this. Maybe as a kid you interacted with one of these strange heroic creatures, and came away thinking, “man, that librarian was AMAZING!” Maybe this was because this librarian recommended a book that changed your life, or allowed you to think about things in a new way, or helped you with your computer skills, or introduced you to a new technology, film or database, or just generally gave you the encouragement, implicitly or explicitly, to read voraciously all your life and cultivate your inner world, as a deep, satisfying consolation for living in this crazy world.
Yes: librarians are super heroes. But, inquisitive minds will ask, what are other ways that librarians are super heroes, beside the more obvious reasons listed above?
Well, dear blog habitue, that is the reason for this post. Because, although you might not know this, there is an actual week that librarians, along with other bookish super heroes (booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all stripes) celebrate, exclusively to celebrate the joy of reading and the freedom to seek and express ideas – even and especially if those ideas are unpopular or unorthodox (more on that in a bit). And that week is called….(drumroll please)……
Banned Books Week!
(pause to enjoy happy multicolored exclamations)
Okay, so what is Banned Books Week more specifically? Banned Books Week is essentially a whole bunch of events that happens each year, in libraries, bookstores and schools all across the country and abroad, during the week of September 22-29. These events are promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International, and can involve anything from displays to dramatic readings to film screenings to tables at farmer’s markets to festivals celebrating intellectual freedom – you name it. But all these events are united by the desire to highlight the value of free and open access to information.
A plausible response to this description might be: Why do people ban books? And then, maybe with more bafflement, Who would ban a book? Books are the best! But, if we look at history as well as our current times, people definitely ban books. Just look into the state of affairs in countries like China, Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia (and a lot of other places, too, unfortunately), and you’ll see as much. And that’s just in reference to current times. Historically, books have been banned since we started reading the technology we call the book. One of the first books ever printed was a Latin translation of the Bible, and we know how contentious various readings of that book have been ever since.
Even before the Printing Revolution, there are other, equally classic instances of people trying to suppress information. (I’m thinking now of more Western examples, though it applies to Eastern examples as well.) Think about Plato banishing the poets from his ideal Republic (what a nut!), or the ongoing, vexed relationship in Judaism and Christianity between what is considered orthodox, (and therefore worthy to be read and more popular, normative or mainstream), and what is considered heterodox or heretical, (and therefore – so the argument goes – less worthy to be read, and consequently less popular, normative and mainstream). The list goes on and on.
We might even ask, thinking about all this: what’s the benefit of celebrating the heretical, the unpopular, the unorthodox, as Banned Books Week does? My own personal answer is a quote, “I think now that myth is simply gossip grown old, whereas heresy is the breath of profound poetic voices” (from Harold Bloom’s Possessed by Memory). Think about it – Galileo was considered heretical; so were the Gnostics before him, and so were the Civil Rights and LGBT movements after him. People thought William Blake was a madman; Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was deemed immoral, as was Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. These things made people profoundly uncomfortable – they contradicted their deeply held beliefs, assumptions, expectations, conventions and mores. But belief, assumptions, etc. are historical, meaning they change and are therefore fallible. What is common sense today is not common sense tomorrow – there are not many believers nowadays in the geocentric system of astronomy, to use a much-used example. In that sense, our common assumptions about reality are in some ways analogous to deep, worldwide trends, cosmic fads – in one day, out the next.
Because things do change so incrementally and radically, we need to have the best information at our fingertips – the best from the present, and the best from the past – so that we can make intelligent and informed decisions about “How to Live, What to Do.” Banned Books Week celebrates how lucky we are, that we live in a culture that pretty much lets us read what we want to read, and therefore think what we want to think, as long as we do not harm other people in the process. In celebrating these ideas, which are part of our First Amendment, we can deepen our appreciation for intellectual freedom and what it brings us.
So yes, librarians, teachers, booksellers, journalists are super heroes. But so is any reader anywhere in the world who opens a book and, without too many preconceptions, dives in and encounters a new way of seeing/thinking/feeling/imagining. When we celebrate banned books, we are really celebrating the ability to question the status quo, what is considered “popular,” and experience something different, outside our ken, so that we ourselves can become “more truly and more strange.”
Fairfield Porter, Iced Coffee (1966)