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Ruth Bass: Championing freedom? Hang on to freedom to read

2021-06-23-WMSTLIBRARY-1

You can fear ’em. You can challenge ’em. You can take ’em off the shelf. You can burn ’em. But, books persist.

Those who think eliminating books will make people nicer, more moral or better citizens should desist. Even now, when publishers have consolidated and it’s harder to get a book into print, authors and readers find ways.

The idea that writers create culture and human behavior is absurd. Writers reflect culture, reflect a time, reflect humanity. They don’t invent life. But, those who don’t want people to get a glimpse of the world beyond the front porch feel a need to challenge what kids and adults should be allowed to read.

Libraries stand fast on the freedom to read. A former Berkshire Athenaeum librarian told about a group coming in to protest the American Heritage Dictionary because they didn’t like some of its definitions. She toured the library with them, pointing out the Bible as one book a certain group wanted removed, plus other books that she knew the visitors would accept. She reported later that she talked so long that they tired of it all and left, with the dictionary untouched.

Librarians staunchly defend the First Amendment; won’t even tell you who else has read the book you’re about to take out. Privacy is paramount, and the American Library Association has, for decades, defended the public’s right to read.

Getting rid of books has a long history. The Chinese burned those they didn’t like in the Qin Dynasty (213-210 B.C.), the French set fire to carriage loads of Jewish manuscripts in 1244, Spaniards burned Aztec and Mayan manuscripts in the 1560s, Protestants burned Catholic texts in England after Henry VIII broke away from Rome, and the Brits set fire to the Library of Congress during the War of 1812.

It’s amazing to learn that Boston banned Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” in 1930, as did Ireland; the Nazis, famous for book bonfires, burned it. That book is alive and well, today considered a classic of American literature.

Boys and girls in the Soviet Union in the 1980s told us about which American authors they read, Ray Bradbury the outstanding favorite. How did they get such books in a country that didn’t make American literature available? Guide Viola said, “You Americans leave your paperbacks in hotel rooms, and we read them until they fall apart.” We left our books in our room.

Classics targeted in the past and today — and these are still on the shelf, despite challenges — include “Catcher in the Rye,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Ulysses,” “Catch-22,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Call of the Wild,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Lord of the Rings,” and John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.”

The literary world has heaped praise and prizes on the above works.

Steinbeck, already a Pulitzer Prize winner, in 1962 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his acceptance speech, he described the role of the writer this way:

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation.”

The answer to the recent surge of questioning books and asking for them to be banned because they contain something objectionable is pretty basic. Don’t let your kid read them. Just as you don’t let him/her/they find porn on the internet. Helicopter their reading — no matter how much it hobbles their minds.

But, let the rest of us read, whether it’s junk romance or science fiction or great writing. One of the things I’m grateful for, as Thanksgiving approaches, is that my grandmother’s mish-mosh collection in her big, glass-door bookcase was open to me, as well as the shelves at home and whatever I wanted to take out of the library.

Curling up with a book as a child, as a teen, almost always fiction, took me to other worlds without visiting them. They still do.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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