Thursday, October 4, 2012

Repost: Burning, Banning, Censoring, and Rating Books

(It's been brought to my attention that this week is banned books week. It's also been brought to my attention that I've been a complete slacker about posting yesterday. So here on Thursday *gasp* I'm reposting something I originally wrote on June 19, 2009. I wasn't going to write anything but this post at the League brought the topic up again. So here I am. Enjoy and please let me know your thoughts.)

The title above lists several things that are sometimes associated with books. I have listed in them in the order of the worst possible thing to the not-nearly-as-bad-as-creating-bonfires with books. This list is of course, only in my humble opinion.

Burning books is clearly bad. I read Fahrenheit 451. I’ve studied WWII. I love the movie Equilibrium. (If you’ve never seen Equilibrium, you need to. It’s about a dystopian society where Christian Bale is the main character. It’s sort of a Fahrenheit 451 meets The Jungle meets 1984. It’s fantastic). Now some people may say that burning books and banning books are all the same. Both ways you take the book out of the reader’s hands. To the people who say that, I have a short response.

Banning books gets the books out of your local library, possibly out of the Library of Congress, and out of the country. However, Canadians could still be reading that book. Burning books takes the books away completely. There is no changing your mind and saying “Oh, the Catcher in the Rye wasn’t that bad. Let’s un-ban it.” Once you’ve burned every copy of the book found in your country, destroyed all electronic records of it (electronic burning…), and done away with every physical form of it, how can you bring it back? Well let’s hope Canada wasn’t just reading it but keeping electronic copies ready, or else if we change our minds someone is going to spend a long time retyping a lot of books.

Banning I sort of already addressed. Banning books is bad. It’s the government, or the state, or the county, or your mother taking the books off the shelf and saying “You can’t read this”. Generally banning books makes people read them, which is why this is not quite as bad as book burning. When you burn books people get all excited and start throwing books you’re not even supposed to burn on the fire. When you ban books, you get all the teenagers excited and they start reading them. (They’re being rebellious. Ooo, how fun is it to read rebelliously!)

Technically everything listed (burning, banning, rating) is a form of censorship, so I’ll be a little more specific. When I say censorship, I mean when your teacher blacked out all the curse words in The Day No Pigs Would Die or when they tore out those two pages in the Diary of Anne Frank (you know which pages I’m talking about). The censoring I’m talking about is taking out certain parts of the book, butchering books. I bet you’ve come across this in your life. Both of the examples listed have happened to me. Is this nearly as bad as banning or burning? Well, the books still exist so that’s a plus. The books are still on the shelves, another plus. However, the books that remain are butchered books. Books where only what The Man wants you to read is still part of the book. Goodbye hooker scene in the Catcher in the Rye. Goodbye Anne Frank’s dream. Goodbye artistic freedom.

Now all the above things I’ve mentioned are bad, bad things. I do not support any of these things. It’s not the government’s job to tell me what I can and cannot read. That’s my choice. I’m pretty sure books are part of my freedom of expression and the government can’t limit that. Please, keep all books published in their complete form in the libraries. It’s the editor’s job to butcher them, not your librarians.

Rating on the other hand, I feel very differently about.

I’ve wished books were rated since I was ten. I’ve been outspoken about it since I read A Throne of Swords by George R. R. Martin. (Note: I’m not recommending this book. This is like the opposite of a recommendation. However, neither do I believe it should be pulled off the shelves. Read what you like and I’ll read what I like). I guess I didn’t realize that most people didn’t feel this way until Daphne Unfeasible (a literary agent’s blog) mentioned banning and censoring books on her blog and asked her readers to comment. I read the comments and was stunned. I had to say something. I could not let these comments go uncontested. I have commented on someone else's blogs 4 times in my life. It’s just not something I do. But yesterday, I could not control myself. My comment was twice as long as anyone else’s.

All of the commenters expressed their dislike of banning books (completely understandable). One of the commenters said she did not like banning books but wished her 12-year-old could stay a little girl as long as possible and not be exposed to such things. Practically everyone who responded to that said they understood and that it was the parents job to monitor what their child was reading.

It’s not the library and bookstore’s job to make sure the book is in MG instead of YA, or in adult instead of YA. It’s the parents’ job to make sure the book is appropriate.

I laughed.

Are these parents really so naive? Really? Do they really think they can read ahead of their middle school student who has tons of free time? Do they really think that an online synopsis of the adult book your 11-year-old is reading is going to warn you about adult content? (Of course it has adult content, it’s an adult book). Do you really think your 11-year-old wants to talk to you about the strange, sexual content they came across in a book that you’re not aware of? I laugh.

When I was nine years old I read my first sex scene. It was in a Madeleine L’Engle book. My parents approved of Madeleine L’Engle. I’ve already discussed how amazing A Wrinkle in Time was. I loved it so much I read every book by her that my library in the 5th grade had. I stumbled on a book that was a little too old for me. It probably wasn’t that graphic, probably not nearly as graphic as half of the YA out there, but at nine it was more graphic that I ever wanted to be exposed to. How was I supposed to know that this one book out of twenty or more contained this scene when none of her other books did?

When I was ten I read my first curse word in a book. I cried because it was Han Solo who said it and I couldn’t imagine one of my heroes ever saying such a thing. It’s one thing to hear a curse word briefly, it’s another to see it spelled out – staring at you.

I outgrew the kids section of the library at ten and plunged into Star Wars books, where I did not have to worry about sex, just some kissing at worst. But by the time I was twelve, I had read every published Star Wars book. More were coming, but I couldn’t wait. I started reading Wheel of Time and the Dragonriders of Pern that Christmas. Lucky for me both are fairly tame when it comes to cursing (since they both make up their own curse words) and both have only PG-13 love scenes. (It’s insinuated that something happened, but no details). However, some of the pure evil I read in the Wheel of Time (the Forsaken are a group of pretty evil people) was too much for me to understand. I suppose I should still wish it was, but now I understand it better.

I read my first graphic romance scene in the tenth grade. It was in a fantasy book – not a romance book – a legit fantasy book sold in the sci-fi/fantasy section of the bookstore and it was recommended to me by a friend. It was more than I needed to know. I regretted reading it.

I read two of George R.R. Martin’s books my freshman year in college. After the second one I just could not go on. The plot was not worth the graphic images of sex it was putting in my mind. It was not worth the curse words that I learned (words I had never heard before but read in the book).

Now I’m very careful about reading books. I rarely pick up a book I’ve never heard of or read a book that wasn’t recommended to me by a friend I trust. The fact that books don’t warn me about their content keeps me from reading.

All of this description was to bring up two points.

1) Do you really think you can read every book your child reads? I read 500 words a minute. I read two adult books a week in middle school. My parents tried to read Wheel of Time with me, but my dad is a slow reader. I was always at least two books ahead of him. Did this make him a bad parent? No. Would it have made him a bad parent if he had forced me to read books he could read quickly or if he had made me wait the weeks and months it took for him to read a 1000 page Robert Jordan novel? Yes. He would have been stopping me from reading.

2) I think books should be rated.

The second statement might shock some people. It might cause some people to cry out that I’m censoring books. Well, we rate movies. No sane, good parent would let her seven-year-old see a sexually graphic movie. We put age limits on movies. G and PG movies are good for kids to just show up in. If you’re seeing PG-13 you better have an adult with you. To see an R you better have your parents and you’re not allowed to see it after seven pm. If it’s NC-17, I don’t care how much you beg. You better be old enough.

Is this rating of movies censoring movies? Is this rating of movies banning certain movies to an entire generation of movie-goers? Is this rating system infringing on children’s rights to see what they please? I’ve never heard anyone try to argue in favor of any of these points. Most people would laugh and say the movies are still available – it’s not censoring (that’s what TBS is for). The children can see the movies when they’re old enough and children don’t have rights.

Many people also agree that books are more powerful than movies in a child’s imagination. If that’s true, why do we let our children read books we would never let them see in movie form?

And if you really want your child to read a PG-13 book it’s not like they can’t. You, as the parent, buy the book and give it to your child. It’s not illegal or against the rules to take your child to a PG-13 movie. Neither would anyone frown upon you for reading a PG-13 book. The point is that you know and your child knows what they are getting into. As a young reader (and still as a slightly older reader) I would have liked to know. Is this book PG-13 for violence? Ok, I won’t find the violence so shocking. Is it R for sexual content? Maybe I should put this one back on the shelf and read it when I’m older. Is it PG? Sweet. No worries for me.

I think half of the horror of what I read as a child is that I did not expect or see it coming. If I had been warned the book contained cursing, I wouldn’t have been as surprised when Han Solo cursed. If I had been warned the book contained sexual content, I wouldn’t have been surprised when it happened. I could make informed decisions about what I should and should not read.

When I was twelve I remember thinking “I wish books were rated” and that feeling has not changed, but maybe you feel differently. That’s cool. That’s what America is all about. It’s about the freedom to disagree. I just wish I had the freedom to know what books would be rated if they were movies.

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