The phenomena of banning books is in no way new. Every repressive regime throughout history has sought to erase knowledge and viewpoints they deemed dangerous. An emperor of China’s Qin dynasty famously burned the works of all Confucian scholars before burying them alive — the scholars, not the works — for good measure. The Spanish inquisition spawned the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a surprisingly long-lived publication outlining forbidden and heretical literature. Orwell’s chilling 1984 was inspired by the mass Nazi and Soviet totalitarian book-burnings, though this ironically didn’t save his novel from being challenged in 1981 for being “pro-communist.”
Even the United States, a bastion of free speech and press, hasn’t managed to avoid this censorious tendency. The American Library Magazine shows that a whopping 11,300 books have been challenged — that is, formally complained about and sometimes banned — since 1982.
Ben Cutler, a teacher and poet in Swain County, says he lives in constant apprehension of classroom books being challenged. “I haven’t faced it personally,” he said, “but I’ve certainly taught books that have been challenged elsewhere. It’s the kind of thing I’m always waiting for it to happen, especially as an English literature teacher.”
When asked for examples of a book that might be challenged, Cutler immediately referenced Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
“I know it has a history of being challenged, but it’s a book I pretty strongly believe in. When I have the right class, the right group of students, I like to teach The Kite Runner. I think it’s such a powerful book. I think it’s important for kids in our region to be exposed to the belief systems and tragedies taking place in the context of Islam,” Cutler said.
The Kite Runner is a perfect storm of oft-cited reasons for book-banning: religious viewpoint, violence and sexuality not fit for younger age groups. That it is so often challenged offers a key insight into modern American censorship: though blatantly banning books for adults is now mostly taboo, children can often be used as a shield and bludgeon against subject matter parents and other authority figures dislike.
“It’s a book that deals with Islam, and I think for those who are only informed by what they see in the media, regarding radicalism and terrorism, just the mention of Islam or Muslims can be alarming or offensive to some,” said Cutler. “But that’s one of the reasons I try to teach the book, because it immerses us into the world of these characters who are Islamic, but who are beautiful, diverse, complex people who’ve suffered from radicalism more than most U.S. citizens. But if you don’t have that context, some people can be alarmed by it. It also deals with violence — specifically sexual violence.”
Cutler feels that the students he teaches this book and similar material to are mature enough to handle it.
“I’m not ever in favor of banning books,” he said. “Those pieces of great literature have almost all been banned, resisted, at some point — you could say that the history of literature is the history of banned literature. But, I think there is something to be said for being critical. We’re trying to teach our students to read with an informed, critical eye. And that’s where you run into trouble with parents. Oftentimes, you’ll find they haven’t even read the book, or are simply afraid of what the book contains without understanding what’s really there. It’s the great irony of banned books: those who ban them usually know very little about them!”
Most who challenge books, then, are not malicious, but rather uninformed. They see a buzzword like ‘Islam,’ ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sex’ and jump to premature conclusions. However, he feels that parents and teachers are united in that they both care about protecting the students.
“To sort of speak on behalf of parents, they’re just doing the same critical process I have to do as a teacher. Questioning what are the texts I’m going to teach, why am I going to teach them, are my students ready for this, is this the right group? Say there’s a book that deals with sexual assault. I have to really think about who’s in my class when we read that. Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t teach the book, but I’d definitely take it pretty seriously,” said Cutler. “So I certainly understand the idea that kids might not be ready for something, but also am against the complete removal of a text. Because banned books are often the ones questioning or challenging the status quo. These are the books that are really making us think and challenging us, and I think it’s a real dangerous game if we start getting into a mindset that we shouldn’t be challenging our kids.”
What separates modern American censorship from historical book burnings is their personal, bottom-up quality. Rather than being banned by censorious regimes, books are by and large challenged on an individual basis, for a myriad of unique cultural reasons. Still, this begs the question: if your complaint is “I don’t want my kid to read this,” why try to blanket-ban it for everyone? Where does the personal become political?
“I think we kind of inflate our own sense of morality, and extend that to everyone else,” Cutler said. “We can say ‘if this isn’t right for my kid, then it isn’t right, period.’ People often extend their morality to a worldview as opposed to a personal belief. And so they believe that they’re not only protecting their own child, but they’re protecting others. That’s a noble sentiment, but one that I’d venture to say is also arrogant, perhaps.”
Ben Cutler is an educator at Swain High School. His book of poetry The Geese Who Might Be Gods, is available for sale at https://mainstreetragbookstore.com/product/the-geese-who-might-be-gods-benjamin-cutler/
Banned Books Week
The American Library Association’s Banned Books Weeks is Sept. 27-Oct. 3. Visit the organization’s website at ala.org for information about censorship and lists of the most commonly banned books by year.