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Freedom to Read

Excerpts from books targeted by would-be censors


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse Five, Of Mice and Men: Every one a literary classic, critically acclaimed over and over, and often staples of high school literature classes -- and they've all been banned at one time or another. And now you can add the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and the silly "Captain Underpants" kids' books to the list of books being targeted by would-be censors. Actually "would-be censors" is probably too kind; there are a lot of simpletons out there who feel that if they object to a book's content, then by God no one should be able to read it. In fact, this spring a US district judge ordered the Harry Potter books back into general circulation in the Cedarville, Arkansas, School District after the district restricted access to the wildly popular series about the boy wizard. In Charlotte, we have our own "dirty book guy," over-the-top conservative Martin Davis who gained notoriety (and laughs) when he disrupted County Commission meetings by reading aloud from library books about gay sex.

In response to this kind of close-minded buffoonery, the American Library Association (ALA) sponsors an annual Banned Books Week (this year, September 20-27), a celebration of our right to access books without censorship.

The ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom has recorded more than 7,000 book challenges since 1990. A challenge is a formal, written complaint requesting a book be removed from library shelves or school curriculum. The ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom estimates that less than one-quarter of challenges are reported and recorded. Last year, 515 challenges were reported in the US, a number that has stayed relatively steady over the past decade. "It's important to realize that we have the freedom to choose what we read, and how important that freedom is," says Beverley Becker, associate director of ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom. "Each book that is challenged is a potentially banned book. It's clear that there's no agreement as to what's acceptable, and we should be able to make that decision for ourselves."

Rita Rouse, programming and communications director for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library, says the library sponsors something called "Freedom to Read" week, which she says is in line with idea promoted by the ALA.

"Very few books are actually banned outright," Rouse says. "Some books may come under a challenge in which somebody objects to a book's content and believes it's inappropriate, but very few people actually want to take it out of the system. That's what Freedom to Read week is all about. There's a constitutional guarantee in the Bill of Rights of open information and open access to news and information. Americans have a constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. From the parental standpoint, it's certainly up to them to decide what's appropriate."

With the exception of our man Martin Davis, Rouse says the library receives very few complaints or challenges. "Once in a while a parent will say to a librarian, "I'm not sure a certain book is appropriate for my child,'" Rouse says. "It's usually over issues of violent content. But that violent content can sometimes be in a book like Snow White."

Frazer Dobson, buyer for Park Road Books, says the store works with the American Booksellers Association to promote Banned Books Week with various store displays.

"Obviously, we are all for intellectual freedom," says Dobson. "We like to use it (Banned Books Week) as an opportunity to bring to people's attention that this kind of thing still happens, and urge them to get the books so they can read them and decide for themselves. It's really very surprising some of the things that have wound up on banned books lists over the years. Catcher in the Rye is one of the perennial favorites of book banners, and it's on a lot of schools' reading lists."

Lynn Payne, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble, says that while not associated with the ALA, at their stores until the end of September they have on display a banned books table, which includes such classics as The Giver, The Grapes of Wrath, and Lord of the Flies. Payne says that concerning the issue of censorship, the company-wide position is as follows: "While we have received requests over the years to stop selling everything from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to The Living Bible, we do not feel we have the right as retailers to censor the reading tastes of the public. We follow community standards as expressed through federal, state and local legislation. Although Barnes & Noble may not personally endorse all of the books and magazines that we sell, we respect the rights of individuals to make decisions about what they buy and read."

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