Higher Living Reflections

Banning Books: Closing of the American Mind

Caveat lector. Beware, reader. The content you are about to ingest might cause you discomfort.

Caveat lector can be a wise caution given the stupidity and inanity being held as gospel by those who get their “news” from social-media sources. But caveat lector is a two-edged sword. It can also cause great harm to the open mind by using it to ban great works of literature from school curricula.

In her memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran, Professor Azar Nafisi describes the clandestine sessions she held in her apartment with young Iranian women to discuss literary works the Islamic Republic’s morality squad repressed. Nafisi had been raised during the reign of the ousted Shah who, despite his autocratic rule, allowed the liberal air of the West to permeate Iranian society. After earning her degrees at American universities, she returned to Iran after the 1979 Revolution and faced immediate scrutiny. Despite enormous pressure exerted on her to wear the traditional garb prescribed by the autocratic male rulers and to cease teaching Western literature, Nafisi refused to buckle. Her novel is a paean to true courage.

It is telling how American morality squads, including certain school boards and directors, hide behind the shibboleth that they are not banning books, but instead “removing them from approved reading lists.” It is a distinction without a difference, a euphemism. They simply change a word to make the act sound acceptable, even benign, but without lessening its intention. Like saying “frigging” in lieu of the f-bomb. Both mean copulating, but frigging conveys a venial-sin tone much like saying “gosh dang it” in lieu of you know what. The truth is whether a book is banned or removed, it has the same effect—CENSORSHIP.

Censorship knows no limits to where it is practiced. From Iran to American schools and school districts, the morality police and cultural warriors are unceasingly on the prowl, forbidding the teaching of works from classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn to more current novels that explore topics that offend uptight, pearl-clutching moralists.

A teacher friend told me she sees dropping books from approved reading lists “as nefarious as banning books because the powers-that-be are not only discouraging students from reading those books, but they are also discouraging teachers from teaching or even recommending those novels.”

She notes too that saying books are dropped from approved reading list is less inflammatory than saying they are banned. In so doing, they and their egregious act “receives less parent awareness of what has been done.”

The harm goes deeper, though, for it has disturbing, unconscionable consequences. She said she is finding novel reading becoming absent from English classes and talked sadly about how her children used to “gobble up” novels in elementary school but barely read one in its entirety in middle and high school.

“I cringe,” she said, “when I think that my students will read less than eight novels by the time they graduate from high school. And I think I’m fairly generous with that number—and this is in the HONORS CLASSES!”

Banning classic works is more sinister than pearl-clutching moralism. It lessens, even demeans, the importance of not only reading but also opening the mind, which is the purpose of liberal education. The intent of banning books is to keep people ignorant, stupid, and easily duped. It arises from righteous indignation. In his 1987 best-selling The Closing of the American Mind, Alan Bloom argues that while indignation might serve nobly for fighting wars and righting wrongs, it is debilitating to reason. Book banning is one more stratagem in the effort to close the American mind.

To counter censorship crusaders, the American Library Association has for nearly forty years celebrated Banned Books Week typically during the last week of September. Its purpose, says the ALA, is to “celebrat[e] the freedom to read.” The week “spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. It brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”

Each year, Banned Books Week has a theme. This year’s is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” 

“Books reach across boundaries and build connections between readers,” the ALA reminds us. “Censorship, on the other hand, creates barriers.”

Autocratic rulers and leaders, religious or political in Iran or America, are dependent upon mass ignorance to prop themselves up. Anyone who does not find something sinister in that also believes it isn’t a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Please do your mind a favor during Banned Books Week by reviewing the ALA website and adopting and loving a banned book. Oodles to choose from.

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  • David Edwards
    September 24, 2021 at 12:35 pm

    We were fortunate that we went to a high school that encouraged us to read books over our weight class. I thank God for our English teacher, Larry Taylor.

  • Laurel McHargue
    September 24, 2021 at 3:36 pm

    I’m horrified to hear that paltry number of novels the teacher expects students will read! Yikes! I also blame the big $$$, big influence textbook companies that dictate curriculum and the associated tests students must endure each year. It’s just plain wrong. As for censorship, when will we finally be able to say/write FUCK instead of censoring ourselves with what our delicate ears consider the less offensive “frigging”? Thank you, Jerry, for your always informative musings.

  • Glenn Blanco
    September 24, 2021 at 7:18 pm

    Jerry, have faith in people. Get this:
    Tell people to get vaccinated to save their life-some won’t
    Tell people not to read a certain book-some will.
    It’s that easy,

  • Bernadette Phelps
    September 25, 2021 at 3:24 am

    When reading is censored or removed from the approved list, we all suffer and die a little at a time. That’s why people fell off moving aircraft; for the chance to get to a country where you have the right to read, learn and study any topic, not just someone else’s idea of what is appropriate.