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National Banned Books Week 2015

Old Covered Books on Table HD Wallpaper

Today is the official start of “Banned Books Week” here in the U.S.; the annual counter-assault against the angry and the self-righteous who dare to tell the rest of us independent thinkers what we can and cannot read. It’s a relentless battle.

This year the theme is “Young Adult” fiction. YA fiction, as it’s more commonly known, is the newest fad among adventurous scribes who want to help teenagers cross the troubled bridge into full-blown adulthood; the period of life where people learn the hard way that they aren’t the center of the universe. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy is one highly successful example. Despite its popularity, it has garnered its own share of conservative protestors. I really can’t understand that. Within the context of American mythology, “The Hunger Games” has everything: violence, racial exceptionalism and plenty of bad luck. I mean, people getting shot down like wild animals. What’s more American than that?

One of the more curious books being challenged is Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, born Loretta Pleasant in Virginia in 1920, who died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. It’s not her brief life or tragic death that is necessarily so compelling. It’s not even the fact she died of cervical cancer. It’s what resulted from her death, and the variety of ethical challenges her situation posed. The type of cervical cancer she developed was unique; something oncologists at the time had never seen. Shortly before Lacks’ death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed two samples of the cancer – without her knowledge or permission. They ended up in the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey who noticed the cells were unusually durable. Gey isolated and multiplied some of the cells, producing a line he dubbed “HeLa.” The HeLa line would go on to assist cancer researchers in the ensuing decades.

Perhaps the most famous outcome was the cure for one of humanity’s greatest scourges. Jonas Salk used the HeLa line to develop the polio vaccine, which was approved for general use in 1955, after only three years of testing. Immediately thereafter, other scientists began cloning the HeLa cell line; since then, over 10,000 patents involving the HeLa cells have been granted.

The Lacks Family didn’t learn of these advances until 1973, when a scientist contacted them, wanting blood samples and other genetic materials. For them and many African-Americans, this scenario reminded them of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study;” perhaps the most egregious and blatant example of medical racism in the U.S. The tale of Henrietta Lacks is nonetheless a compelling study of medical research and medical ethics. But one idiot in Knoxville, Tennessee has a different view: she calls it pornography. Parent Jackie Sims found Skloot’s book inappropriate for students at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville. The term “inappropriate,” of course, means: ‘I don’t like it, so no one else should have access to it.’ Sims apparently equates gynecology with pornography. The term “cervical” surely sent her frail mind into a tizzy. Her precious on was given an alternate text (maybe something along the lines of a Disney coloring book), but Sims – like the typical self-righteous curmudgeon – wants Skloot’s tome to be banished from the entire school district. Fortunately, district authorities haven’t backed down, and – as of this writing – the matter is still under consideration.

For a complete selection of this year’s frequently-challenged books, check out this list. Then go out and buy, or download, one of them and read it, if you haven’t already. Remember, true freedom begins with the written word.

Banned Books Week on Twitter.

Banned Books Weeks is partnered with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.

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Save the Books!

“We must not believe the many, who say that only free people ought to be educated, but we should rather believe the philosophers who say that only the educated are free.” – Epictetus.

I should have mentioned this sooner, but this week is officially “Banned Books Week.”  It’s a celebration of the freedom to read whatever you want, whenever you want.  “Banned Books Week” started in 1982 in response to several challenges to textbooks and other literary pieces in schools across the U.S.  The sudden surge of conservative ideology at that time was a beleaguered backlash against the supposed threat of liberalism.  Some people – mostly of the religious bent – suddenly felt they knew what was proper for the rest of society to read.  But, no society is truly free and democratic unless all people can read and write and all eligible citizens can vote.  Here in Texas, even moderates have had a hell of a time striking back against the archaic conservatives of the state school board, which unknowingly made Texas the laughing stock of the nation and the world.

According the American Library Association, there 326 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2011; many others may have gone unreported.

Here are the 10 most challenged titles of 2011:

  1. ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
    Reasons: offensive language; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
  2. The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa
    Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
  3. The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
    Reasons: anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence
  4. My Mom’s Having A Baby! A Kid’s Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler
    Reasons: nudity; sex education; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
  5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: offensive language; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
  6. Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
    Reasons: nudity; offensive language; religious viewpoint
  7. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
    Reasons: insensitivity; nudity; racism; religious viewpoint; sexually explicit
  8. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
    Reasons: nudity; offensive language; sexually explicit
  9. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar
    Reasons: drugs; offensive language; sexually explicit
  10. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
    Reasons: offensive language; racism

I still find it amazing – actually appalling – that, in the U.S., nudity and sexuality are considered obscene, while violence – even in the extreme – is viewed with flippant disregard.  Other countries have it right in that they regard violence as the true obscenity.

Please also check out the Literary Freedom Project, which has the same goal.  While this officially only lasts until October 6, we can never let down our guard for the sake of literary freedom.

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Shades of Erotic Fascination

E. L. James

Feminists and religious conservatives may not like this, but sex sells.  That’s certainly evident with E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades” erotica trilogy, which is selling faster than expected.  Book suppliers and libraries are having a tough time keeping pace with it.  Even its British author has been surprised by the popularity.  Last month Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, released “Fifty Shades” in paperback.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” has become the most popular book in library circulation, with more holds than anyone can recall for a single title.  The Hennepin County Public Library, which includes Minneapolis, had 2,121 holds as of May 18.  The books tell the tale of a dominant-submissive affair between a manipulative millionaire and a naïve younger woman.  And, while some libraries such as Hennepin County feel the need to make it available to the public, others have no qualms in pulling it from their shelves.  The Brevard County Library in Florida did just that recently, deeming its subject matter inappropriate for public consumption.  As if adults can’t figure out what’s appropriate for themselves, Don Walker, a spokesman for the Brevard County government, said, “We have criteria that we use, and in this case we view this as pornographic material.”

In Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the library didn’t order copies, saying the books didn’t meet the standards of the community.  In Georgia the Gwinnett County Public Library, near Atlanta, declined to make the books available in its 15 branches, saying that the trilogy’s graphic writing violated its no-erotica policy.

Last week several organizations, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, sent a letter to the library board in Brevard County scolding it for refusing to stock the book alongside standards like “Tropic of Cancer” or “Fear of Flying.”

“There is no rational basis to provide access to erotic novels like these, and at the same time exclude contemporary fiction with similar content,” the letter said.  “The very act of rejecting erotica as a category suitable for public libraries sends an unmistakable message of condemnation that is moralistic in tone, and totally inappropriate in a public institution dedicated to serving the needs and interests of all members of the community.”

Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said in an interview that it was unusual for a library to remove a book from its section for adults.  “The vast majority of cases that we deal with have to do with removing books to keep kids from seeing them,” she said.  “That’s what makes this so egregious.  There are some possible arguments for trying to keep kids away from certain kinds of content, but in the case of adults, other than the restrictions on obscenity and child pornography, there’s simply no excuse.  This is really very much against the norms in the profession.”

Marcee Challener, the manager of materials and circulation services for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Libraries, said that library officials there carefully considered the book before ordering it, but ultimately decided that it was no different from one of the paranormal romances featuring vampires that have been popular for years.

“There’s sex and eroticism in many well-written literary novels,” she said.  “It’s part of the human experience.”

Indeed, it is, and censorship of any kind is antithetical to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech and a free press.  As a writer, however, I’m still amazed that some self-appointed moral authoritarians feel the need to determine what’s in my best interest.  I don’t care for any religious texts, such as the Christian Bible or Jewish Torah.  But, I would never prevent anyone from reading them if they wanted. For your own enjoyment, you can check out the “Fifty Shades” series here.

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What’s a Bigger Crime – Censorship or Self-Censorship?

It’s bad enough there are always people who feel they know what’s best for everyone else.  The current debate in Congress over birth control is testament to that.  But, as a fiction writer, I know all artists will offend someone somewhere at some point in time.  In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously stated that he couldn’t define obscenity, “[B]ut I know it when I see it.”  If obscenity or offensive material is purely subjective, then how can free speech and a free press conflict with community standards?  I guess it depends on whose standards you’re talking about.  Personally, I don’t feel that nudity or sexuality is necessarily obscene.  But, I find violence offensive.  It seems most Americans feel the opposite.  Yet, I think when artists start censoring themselves to placate the masses – or worst, an oppressive totalitarian regime – then the true spirit of creativity has been butchered.  In years past, writers and poets in the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations lived in fear that their own works could be not just professional, but personal suicide.  Now, China is in the spotlight, as its writers are subjected to growing levels of censorship in a country that is increasingly becoming a major player on the global stage.

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