Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Talking About Banned Books

By Anne Perry

We all want the freedom to make our own choices, and to do so without penalty or coercion. But with freedom comes responsibility to live with the results. A civilized society tries to create a balance between protecting the vulnerable and stifling the explorers of the mind, the innovators and the creators in the imagination, without whom there would be no invention and no art.

It is an appallingly difficult course to steer. My freedom of religion might be your blasphemy. My questions might be disturbing to you – your art might be obscene to me. One man's political protest might be another's treason, and so on.

Who has the right or the duty to decide what we may or may not read? And upon what grounds?

Which brings me to the question how on earth anyone decided that "The Chronicles of Narnia" were dangerous and should be banned. Am I hopelessly naïve and missing some dark evil in a children's story which is blazingly obviously Christian, written by a man famous for his faith and his inspiring wartime broadcasts to Britain?

"Narnia" is not among my favourites of his works. I greatly prefer The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters with their brilliant philosophical insights. They were not mentioned as banned, but seem to me far more provocative of thought, self-questioning and possible growth. Are they allowed? May we know what C. S. Lewis thought to be the smallness of mind, the sins clung onto which will keep us out of heaven?

I am more than surprised that "Narnia" was banned. I am astounded, and I admit I do not understand.

Which banned book is my favourite? I don't even have to think about that. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. I grew up with it in my hand. Even now, listening to others read it to their children, I find I can follow almost word for word.

Its wit and imagination still please me. The smile of the Cheshire Cat is part of the furniture of my mind, as is the Mad Hatter with the price ticket on his hat, the March Hare (they do go crazy in March here in the fields and are a joy to see), the Gryphon, the dance on the seashore; all of it.

To me, Alice was a reflection of myself; inquisitive, articulate and frequently argumentative and, like most children, with a keen sense of what is fair. I also had vivid dreams, and toy animals I talked to (They never talked back! That would be cause for concern). I knew all the poetry and loved the play on words. I can still smile at "reading, writing and painting in oils" ending up as "reeling, writhing and fainting in coils."

And Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen – "jam every other day – yesterday and tomorrow!" Life can seem like that. "Don't waken the Red King or we shall all disappear – we are only figments of his dream."

And the poetry in "Through the Looking Glass": The Walrus and the Carpenter. I could quote screeds of it. Even better, the White Knight, forever slipping off his horse, and the old man a-sitting on a gate that summer evening long ago.

It seemed to be innocent, funny and very dear. What did I miss in it that was so dangerous it must be banned? Dangerous to what? My imagination, my laughter, my love of reading, my ability to "think outside the box"?

Who decides these things? What slander, blasphemy or sedition is hidden in these stories? What monster do they see that I missed? Is it possible it isn't there, and they brought it with them?

Anne Perry is an award-winning New York Times bestselling author. Her two Victorian mystery series have more than 25 million copies in print worldwide. A docu-style video on Perry and more about her books can be found here.


Steve Liskow said...

You wouldn't believe what else has been banned: Huck Finn, 1984, The Grapes of Wrath, Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, A Wrinkle in Time, Origin of Species, The Merchant of Venice...

During my teaching career, I assigned something like 37 different works that were on someone's hate list. The books are always challenged by "well-meaning" people who want to protect their little darlings from the real world, but the result is people who don't know how to cope with controversy or think for themselves. That's how you get the current congress that doesn't understand the lessons of history.

Put simply, if you got through school without reading many of the books that are on the most banned books list, you aren't really educated.

The more I think about it, the more I oppose censorship on any grounds. The only consideration should be if the book is well-written, and, unfortunately, I'm not sure my stuff would pass THAT test.

Marcia Talley said...

Thanks for the reminder of what is so wonderful and timeless about Alice in Wonderland. I read it for the first time in 4th grade, and it's been at the top of my list of favorites ever since. I even have an illustrated edition on my iPad!

Sheila Connolly said...

I too grew up with Alice, and the memory of the wonderful Tenniel illustrations (a pox on the Disney version!).

To me it speaks of childhood imagination, not the influence of hallucinogens or illicit substances. Although how we deal with the fact that Carroll/Dodgson may have been a pederast is tricky.

There was a time when Sendak's In the Night Kitchen was criticized for showing certain body parts.

I think too many parents (or maybe it's non-parents) don't give children enough credit for their ability to understand and make judgments about what they read.