This week is Banned Books Week, which, although the practice of assigning a day / week / month to celebrate every admirable sentiment is relatively absurd, nevertheless celebrates an admirable sentiment. As always, the Lamp supports freedom of speech and expression, and I believe I speak for my associates in endorsing the notion that schools and public libraries should rise above political differences with regard to the books they provide. And, while we’re at it, librarians themselves, who have as a profession adopted an admirable stance in favor of individual freedoms.
So it is in the spirit of fellowship that I critique the University Libraries’ selection of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as the centerpiece of their Banned Books Week exhibits, presented in collaboration with the Progressive Librarians Guild (the irony of their flagship exhibit being the film version of this novel will, for now, go unaddressed).The novel was chosen, according to the Wildcat article, “not only because it is one of the most challenged but also because this year marks the 50th anniversary of its publication,” and these are not invalid justifications. But To Kill a Mockingbird is the elder statesman of banned books, with a message of racial tolerance that is almost wholly uncontroversial in mainstream public discourse – it is Banned Books Week’s Gregory Peck, handsome, graying and distinguished. Many modern challenges against the book are motivated not by objections to the book’s fundamental message about racial tolerance but by objections to its use of “profanity and racial slurs.” That is to say, its chief enemies are those who have missed the point entirely.
So, when one considers challenges against To Kill a Mockingbird, one imagines only antisegregationists and militant Bowdlerizers – groups which no one takes seriously, and who already find themselves in direct conflict with the conventional morality of librarians and intellectuals. The choice of To Kill a Mockingbird, then, waters down the message of Banned Books Week from “don’t restrict artistic expression” to “don’t restrict the sorts of artistic expression which enjoy widespread public support (and ours).”
Librarians: Might I suggest American Psycho, which, though a satire, features quite a few deaths by chainsaw? Or Naked Lunch, which, though considered by some to be a great work of literature, contains incomparably graphic violent and sexual content? Or Breakfast of Champions, which is chock full of anus cartoons? Or even Heart of Darkness, which, despite its genteel prose, is pretty racist?
We oppose censorship not only because some would censor work which is admirable in itself, not only because we are untrustworthy of those who would presume to decide for us what is acceptable expression, but also because we have much to learn from the misguided, the offensive, and the wrong.
And as such, our heroic librarians would do better to select a historically controversial book to which reasonable people might still object.