Banned books and forbidden reads…

I was visiting my family a little while ago when I came across a battered copy of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and inside the front cover I had scrawled ‘this book belongs to Katherine Williams, aged 9’. Wowsers! That was 17 years ago! I am now 26 and my reading tastes have changed relatively little since those heady days.

I loved Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris and had an impressive collection of Stephen King books. I also read a lot of Goosebumps/Point Horror and Horrible Histories. Living in a relatively rural area (within the remit of Dartmoor National Park in Devon), reading was an essential escape from the tedium of everyday life, especially during the school holidays. And I liked nothing better than scaring myself silly. Yes, yes, genetically-engineered dinosaurs, murderous über fans and charismatic serial killers may all be characters within works of fiction but they COULD be real! And that was the true beauty of my reading experiences; that ‘spillage’ into real life. I realise now that genetically-engineered dinosaurs are probably too unrealistic an expectation but I was a very imaginative child…

Finding the book at my mum’s house and thinking about those days of ‘forbidden’ reads has got me thinking about what age-appropriate reading actually is. My parents never stopped me from reading anything I wanted. I suppose to some people that may indicate disinterest or ‘bad’ parenting (I find that argument quite ridiculous myself). Looking back at it now, I know that in some respects, I wanted to read the books I did because they were deemed ‘naughty’ or ‘inappropriate’ by some, but I also had an above-average reading level and books designed for my age range simply weren’t satisfying enough.

At the time, I felt that books designed for young readers where decidedly lacklustre and quite frankly, did not appeal to my reading inclinations. Everyone is different, of course. Thinking about age-appropriate reading also got me thinking about banned books and the futility of censorship.

The American Library Association has a list of banned classics on its website. These books were considered obscene or inappropriate due to ‘adult’ content. More often, the books listed (such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, 1984, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and A Clockwork Orange, to name but 5; coincidently, I have all of these books…) challenged entrenched social conventions at the time; namely attitudes towards Civil Rights, totalitarian governments in the aftermath of WW2, mental illness, ‘yoof’ culture and sex/relationships. Even authors like Judy Blume had their work banned in US schools for their supposed promotion of ‘promiscuity’; or as I like to call it, young women making sensible decisions about their own bodies and contraception.

It might seem unfair to focus on the US as an example of a nation that has reacted unreasonably to the publication of certain ‘types’ of books. The UK has done its fair share of banning and burning too; Harry Potter (in some faith schools), Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Ulysses have all fallen foul of over-zealous critics and enthusiastic arsonists.

I remember at school, an acquaintance vowed never to read Harry Potter as its promotion of witchcraft was at odds with her Christian faith. I found that a bit weird, to be honest.

We see images of war, starving children and destruction on our TVs every day yet in the past we have been deemed too irresponsible by the ‘powers-that-be’ to make our own decisions regarding what we like to read for pleasure in case we turn into slavering maniacs.

Sorry kids, you can’t read Judy Blume in case you turn to prostitution but feel free to watch MTV where you will be bombarded with images of half-naked women and chauvinistic/homophobic rap artists.

Despite my intense loathing of the 50 Shades trilogy for, in my opinion, its promotion of domestic abuse, plans by a UK-based domestic violence charity to burn copies of the books strikes me as hugely irresponsible.

I posted a critique of 50 Shades on this very blog and I have a strong opinion on it, however, if people want to read it, then that’s up to them. I am sure they are capable of forming their own opinions on the topic, despite the inevitable surfacing of the ‘Christian Grey is soooo romantic’ brigade.

The charity’s frustration at the lack of reaction to the depiction of abuse in the book is understandable but instead of burning books, perhaps the focus of their energies should remain on supporting women who find themselves victims of domestic violence.

Fiction may not dictate social actions but it often depicts social ‘norms’ and I find the message that 50 Shades espouses worrying, but alternatively, I don’t think it should be banned or burned. To me, the message of the campaign appears to be ‘WE’RE DOING THIS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD’…and that’s not right.

Why can’t I ever write a blog post without mentioning that damn book in some way?

Anyway.

Reading, as you may have realised, has always been one of my great pleasures in life. I had a voracious reading appetite as a child and read some awesome books about dinosaurs, killer apes, serial killers and haunted cars. I am grateful to my parents for giving me a free reign with my reading choices and I feel that my experiences of being able to read whatever I wanted has only served to enrich my imagination and influence my literary tastes as an adult. Some of my favourite books have been banned in various countries and institutions across the world yet these titles have prevailed and are as relevant and important as ever. The Colour Purple gets me every time.

As children we are especially sheltered from some of the more ‘unsavoury’ aspects to real life; revolution, sexual freedom, the fight for justice and equality, the nasty things that people do to one another, war, freedom, sexuality, mental illness, the decline of civil society and making our own informed personal choices.

We shouldn’t be banning or burning books, we should be reading them, talking about them, swapping them with our friends and just enjoying them, or hating them, whatever your opinion may be.

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