Freedom to Read
Volume 21 Issue 18 2013-05-17
A lot of freedoms will arrive in the next few weeks. Freedom from scraping ice off our windshields. Freedom to bask in the spring sunshine and read. And an event called Freedom to Read Week, which might just be the most important one of all—because our literary freedoms aren’t as secure as we might think.
In general, North Americans enjoy a great deal of liberty when it comes to reading—and writing—what we want. But the persistent and growing challenges to that freedom cannot be ignored, no matter how far-fetched Guy Montag’s dilemma might seem. A look at some recent challenges shows why.
In an article on the 2009 list of challenges against Canada’s libraries, a Toronto Star article notes that “the overall number of challenges to library resources and policies more than quadrupled to 139 since the [Canadian Library Association] started compiling a list in 2006.”
Although that sharp rise is partly due to entire series being challenged (each book in a series counts as a separate challenge), the actual number of challenges is likely much higher than reported. That’s because the list is based on voluntary submissions. No matter how many challenges a library receives, or what the final decisions are, libraries aren’t required to report that info to the Canadian Library Association (CLA).
Perhaps the biggest surprise is a new trend in where those challenges came from. As a report on the CLA site says, “the proportion of challenges reported in public libraries in 2009 was the lowest of the four years.” So where were books being challenged? In school libraries, where challenges were “the highest of the four years” surveyed.
And you might be startled by this fact: teaching assistants “initiated one-third of all 2009 challenges.”
As well, books and other reading material are routinely blocked from entry by the Canadian Border Service Agency. (The Agency produces a quarterly list of prohibited and now-admissible titles.)
Some of these challenges and outright blocks are understandable. It’s within the bounds of reason to expect that hate propaganda, child pornography, and the like should not be allowed on bookshelves or blogs. But even texts that contain (by today’s standards) inappropriate views can be valuable when read and taught in context.
Books like To Kill a Mockingbird, which speaks so beautifully about the evils of racism by portraying characters that use the very same offensive words and views it combats. Unfortunately, it also happens to be one of the most challenged books of all time.
And books like Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo, challenged in 2010. The book is a compilation of a Tintin comic strip that first appeared in 1929, and reveals social beliefs considered generally acceptable at the time. What better way to teach students that it’s possible to create positive social change than by showing how many stereotypes have been overcome in the past 80 years?
It’s key, of course, to remember that freedom works both ways. We must maintain the right to challenge literature of all stripes—even the innocuous-sounding Chicken Soup for the Unsinkable Soul, another book challenged in 2010.
But whether a book stays on the shelf or is deemed too offensive to remain, we can’t take its presence for granted. Because that’s the surest way to lose our freedom to read.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).
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