Last year, one of my extracurricular activities involved being part of a small, three to four person book club. Run by our local Youthlinks
, the club centered primarily on reading banned books. On the first day of the club, we received a list of all banned books, which included such classics like The Catcher in the Rye
. We were each instructed to pick five of the books we wanted to read during the six week period, and then we would decide on the two or three we would actually be reading.
Our first book was The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck. Heather* and I had both wanted to read that book for quite a while, but neither of us had gotten around to it, so it was exciting for us. We got to read a book that we had heard so much about. We knew about the controversy surrounding it, how the Californians had wanted to ban the book because they felt it portrayed the people of that time in an unsavory light. We knew about the Dust Bowl, the Okies, and how they had struggled each and every day for a way to survive. We knew the Okies were a fleeing people, and we knew the Californians were just ready to catch them and beat them down once again. I thought maybe it would have been better if they had stayed in Kansas or Texas or Oklahoma, because at least then they wouldn't get their hopes up about the chance for a better life.
So we started reading it. It was slow going at first -- I couldn't get used to the dialect, and I got distracted by the ragged copy of the book I had received -- but once I got into it, I really
got into it. I got caught up in the story of the Joads and their struggle to survive. I felt their pain, empathized with their struggle, and found myself enjoying the book. Although there was one thing I could not understand.
Why in the world was the book banned?
Sure, it did not portray the residents of California in the most savory light, but why would it? Everyone alive during that time knew what was going on. There are numerous historical accounts, both written and spoken, that express the same thing that The Grapes of Wrath
does. After the book came out, there was an overwhelming agreement with what Steinbeck spoke. The ending scene of the book was also questionable, but it was by no means graphic. Nothing in the book was graphic. Instead, it seemed like an honest portrayal of the time back then. It was full of heart, with a good Christian message.
So why in the world was it banned?
Because a group of people claimed that it bore false witness. They claimed that it did not speak the truth as it was, and instead demonized a particular group of people -- when we know now that their belief is anything but true.
My view is that it is not the book that bears false witness, but rather it is the people trying to ban it that bear false witness. The Grapes of Wrath
expressed the struggle that the Okies felt and expressed it in an honest way that did not attempt to sugarcoat the truth. It exposed the world as it really was back then, and I'm positive it was even worse for other families.
This goes for all other banned books.
We recently read The Catcher in the Rye
in school. While I could see people banning this book for its language and content (specifically the scene in which Holden hires that prostitute), a good message is present. It exposes the phoniness of the world today, shows how people try so hard to fit in with society, to grow up and be an adult. It tells us that people are different, and that by having a different face for everyone we come across, we are being hypocrites. Holden bemoans the phoniness in his life, but he is phony himself. The book exposes the hypocrisy and the phoniness in today's society -- but people cannot see that because they do not look beyond the swears.
As a writer, I go to books to escape to a different world and uncover some truth that I might not have known about. I go to books to see the world as it really is, without the rose-colored glasses that I so often wear. I go to discover a section of culture that I did not know about before. I go to learn about life.
But I ask: How can I learn about life -- how can anyone learn about life -- if there are books we cannot read?
I strongly believe that each banned book has something we need to know, something that we need to understand. Take Lolita
as a prime example. It is a heinous book, full of terrible viewpoints and a truly villainous main character, but do people really believe that there are not people like that in today's society? Because I know there are, and by banning the book, it is like sticking your fingers in your ears and singing "lalalalala" whenever something bad happens.
So often, life is sugarcoated. People like to think that nothing bad ever happens, so they can exist in their own little bubble. But bad things do happen, and saying anything contrary to that is bearing false witness and omitting details people don't enjoy thinking about. By not allowing teenagers especially to learn about life as it truly is, how do they expect us to grow up to be upstanding members of society? If we do not learn now about what life is like, then we can't expect to know what to do when we get thrust into the world at large, where people do starve, people are pedophiles, people are phony assholes.
Books are often a window into the souls of the unsavory, a portal to the dark things we do not want to know or think about.
But if we do not think of them, we exist in a bubble.
And eventually that bubble will be popped, you know, so better sooner than later, in the comfort of your own home.
*Name changed for protection purposes.
-- This is my entry for week 5 of therealljidol. Thanks go to Writer's Block for giving me inspiration for this topic; otherwise, mine would be quite cliched!