Ban the Books

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By Roger Rosenblatt

The week of September 21-28 is declared Banned Book Week by the American Library Association and other organizations interested in publicizing attempts to ban books in schools and libraries.

Except for a concern about the future of democracy, I don't understand what the fuss is about. Ban all the books, I say.

They clutter the mind with thoughts. They clutter rooms, indeed whole buildings, with dust-collecting objects. As the banners of books know too well, they also promote evil acts. The Harry Potter books are kept away from children in many places because they promote sorcery. For a long time, the three most frequently banned literary works in this country were Macbeth, King Lear, and The Great Gatsby.

The explanations offered always centered on what these works promoted. Macbeth promoted witchcraft, they said. King Lear, I suppose, promoted ingratitude. The Great Gatsby… Long Island?

In Springfield, Oregon, a book was banned called Hitler's Hang-Ups, about Hitler's unusual sexual practices. You know, given Hitler's other tendencies, you'd think that the sexual stuff would be relatively acceptable.

Ban 'em all. Don't pollute those readers' minds, especially the children's minds. The children's book, Where's Waldo? was banned by a school board someplace for containing "explicit subject matter." A plea for surrealism, I suppose. Another book called Wait Till Helen Comes was taken off the shelves for offering, "a morbid portrayal of death." I hate it when that happens.

I can't prove this of course, but I would bet that every civilization that destroyed itself began its self-destruction when someone in power wanted to control what the people were reading. Control is a fairly easy thing once you've established overseeing laws or committees. You get an idea of what books are proper -- that is, safe -- for the public to read. You define safe as that which is least threatening to your power. Finally, you justify your restrictions by telling the people that you know what is best for them, that control of the possible use of their minds is really in their best interests.

Ban the books, and if you can't ban them, make sure at least that you know what everyone is reading. In October 2001, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, a perfectly correct and sensible law in terms of its general desire to protect the country. But then there was section 215 about books, which said that the government investigators can compel booksellers and librarians to turn over information as to what their customers were reading. The law also forbade booksellers and librarians to make public the fact that they had even received such orders.

How this provision got past Congress can only be explained by the heat of a moment. But as soon as you start controlling what people read, you knock off the country you were trying to protect. You can read that in the Constitution.

Ban the books? If you really want to keep the country safe, put up more bookstores, put up more libraries. Come to think of it, put up a library on the World Trade Center site, a local public library branch of the kind where millions of Americans learned how to think and dream for themselves. And in this local library, put as many different books as possible. Put every book under the sun. The sun is known for casting light.

I'm Roger Rosenblatt.

This essay was originally broadcast on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on September 23, 2002. It is reprinted here with permission. Click here to listen to this essay.