The pointlessness of banning books

So, it’s Banned Books Week again.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper LeeI figured it must be time to read at least one, probably for the second time. And as I haven’t read it for a while, I decided on To Kill a Mockingbird. But I couldn’t find my copy. So I went to download one.

Guess what? It’s not available (legally) as an ebook. It’s in good company, but Ms Lee isn’t particularly interested in technology. She wrote this in a letter to Oprah (because we all write to Oprah, don’t we?):

“Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.”

Short of downloading an illegal copy, I guess I’ll have to go get another paper version somewhere.

Richmond, Virginia’s attempts to ban To Kill a Mockingbird

In 1966, five years after it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a school board in the Richmond, Virginia area tried to ban the book. This was around the same time Lee was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by then-President, Lyndon B Johnson.

Lee’s response showed what can only be described as her feisty side:

“Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral“ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”

I love this – I assume it had no effect whatsoever, on the school board, but I’d like to think it made at least one of that number stop and think what it means to ban a book.

Plain stupidity

The human mind seems wired for reverse psychology and this is a case in point. I told an anecdote last year about how banning a play at the Edinburgh Festival was almost guaranteed to make it sell out – banning books is no different.

As I recall, everyone in my high school literature class (well, almost everyone) wanted to read Catcher in the Rye – another banned book – because of all the sex. If the people who found it objectionable had just ignored the book, it seems unlikely my peers would have been quite so fascinated by it.

And yet, some people persist in trying to “ban” books simply because they don’t like them. How silly. Two quotes that sum the whole thing up for me:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

“You know where the off switch is — turn it off if you don’t like it!” my Dad, on television

So go on, go read a book someone else thinks is objectionable. You’ll probably like it.


To Kill A Mockingbird

Amazon US / Amazon UK