Building Better Worlds through Book Banning

People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.

River Tam in Serenity

Image Credit: Ottawa Tonight

Another Freedom to Read Week has passed for this year.  For the past couple of years, starting with the American Library Association’s Banned Book Week, I found myself looking at censorship through a different lens.  The sense of outrage still remains, but now I ask ‘why?’.  Beyond the reasons for challenging, or banning a title, why would someone do that?  After watching Serenity for the umpteenth time, suddenly the people doing the challenging sound a lot like The Operative (played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor.) Unlike the fictional character, nobody gets killed.  (Some would say “Not yet anyway.”)

The Operative, for those who have not even seen Serenity even once, relentlessly tracks River Tam on behalf of The Alliance.  It leads to many Mal confrontations, and not all of them physical.  (Although Mal gets his tight pants kicked quite a bit in this movie.)  It’s the confrontation by conversation catching my attention.  Throughout the movie The Operative does his duty with bloody efficiency, all the while saying he’s ‘building better worlds’.  He takes it even further calling those worlds ‘without sin’, a world he even cannot enter thanks to his deeds.

Suddenly those challenging books for removal sounded a lot like The Operative.  They see a book, or any library material, phrasing their challenge under the guise of ‘not suitable for age group.’  I have to ask if it’s not suitable for a certain age group, will these boys and girls growing up to be men and women finally read the unsuitable book?

I thought not.

In the quest to remove impure materials and not sully minds, those like The Operative have no idea the cause they fight for has damaging effects.  Say the book gets removed for sexual references.  Does it stop readers from feeling curious about the subject?  Does it squelch curiosity about the forbidden at all?  Each book, each video, each objectionable thing gets removed, and we have the library user never sullying themselves with salty language, passionate prose, and harsh diction.

Why do I get the feeling they turn into the people of Miranda, the terraformed plant The Alliance tries to cover up.  Remember that scene?  They put chemicals in the processors to calm the population.  “Well, it worked,” said the Alliance scientist in her last message “They stopped fighting.  They also stopped eating, drinking..”  The littered corpses of the planet testify to a world made so placid they simply stopped doing.  The other, the ‘less than 5% of the population’, turned into the blindly violent Reavers.  To remove books by Judy Blume or Timothy Findlay denies us the opportunity to decide what we like, what we explore, and to come to our own conclusions.  A person may not like a book due to language or sexuality, but if they read a book to come to that conclusion I have more respect for it. It sounds outlandish, but it’s realistic.  However, it happens thanks to allowing readers to make a choice.

While The Operative seems to speak in religious metaphor, and let’s face it Joss has not hidden his atheism, those wanting a world without sin in a library also want to remove books like Huckleberry Finn.  The route to tackling racism, sexism, and any other ism isn’t to take the book tackling the subject out of the library.  Writers tell stories as a way to make meaning, hoping along the way a character will lead a reader to further meaning.  Once again readers are not trusted to come to a conclusion, feel challenged, or to even evolve.  We might as well lay down in the face of it.

What does that leave Librarians, Library Technicians, Library Clerks, and other library lovers?  We are the Mals in this issue.  We don’t wear tight pants, we have lots of flaws, even found ourselves on the losing end of a fight, but know a good fight must be fought.  (Again without killing anyone.)

Libraries provide that fertile ground for meaning making, comprehending, or just plain-old pleasure reading.  Freedom to Read Week, and its American counter part Banned Books Week, remind all of us censorship does not happen ‘over there’.  When a book finds itself challenged, a little bit of Malcolm Reynolds emerges to stand against The Operatives.

Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this – they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.

-Malcolm Reynolds

2 thoughts on “Building Better Worlds through Book Banning

  1. I love your ‘Serenity’ references and so ‘get it’! 🙂

    I was at the Millennium Library on Saturday and read from a couple of those ‘banned’ books. The first was ‘and Tango makes three’, a charming true story for young children about a pair of male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who raised a baby penguin when its natural parents could not raise both her and her sibling. The illustrations were gorgeous and the story was charming but because it talked about Tango having two dads instead of the ‘traditional’ family, people wanted it removed from the school library shelves. Eventually, it was decided to put it in the non-fiction part of the library so it wasn’t as easily found by young impressionable minds! What malarky!

    The second book I read from was ‘The House on Plum Creek’ by Laura Ingalls WIlder. It was challenged because of certain references about native people that might be considered unflattering. This was not challenged by people in the U.S. but actually by two parents in a local school division – way too close to home for my liking! I was glad to know that the school superintendent did not agree with the parents, saying something to the effect that banning the book would not solve anything. In my opinion, the author was only speaking in the terms of the day (it was written almost a hundred years ago, after all!) so what is the harm? If used in the schools properly, a teacher can easily diffuse any hard feelings by simply stating that attitudes and terminology have changed since the book was written.

    Another of the books on the list was ‘The Book of Negroes’. The objection was not about the story per se, but the title. Apparently, the Americans are embarrassed about the title, probably because it reminds them of their objectionable behaviour before slavery was abolished down there! I had a discussion with a woman who obviously had African roots and she was appalled that it had been banned in the States. She told me she was in the process of reading it and loved it!

    This just goes to show that people need to make up their own minds about what they find objectionable and not rely on someone else to make their decisions for them!


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