01.06.10

Censorship, Gossip Girl, and the Function of Reading

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:17 pm

So there’s been a bit of stuff in the news lately about the mother from Florida who decided she didn’t want her daughters reading the Gossip Girl books, and decided that the best, smartest and most sensible option to go with was to steal the books from her local library and keep them.  For three years.

Tina Harden is on record as saying “It’s not that I lost the books or I didn’t feel like turning them in,” she said. “I want us to work together. Hopefully they have the same goals as I do.”  I think she’ll probably find that libraries rarely have the same goals in mind as censorship-happy wowsers who steal public property.

The sense of entitlement in her comments boggles my mind.  Sure, parents can and should play a role in deciding what they want their children exposed to (although I’d argue that, by the time they hit their teens, you should be giving them a liiiiittle bit of freedom to make some of these decisions themselves).  How on earth can someone possibly think they have the right to decide what other people’s children should read?  As a librarian, I should probably be used to this kind of thing by now, given that I’m an avid fan of the ALA’s Banned and Challenged Book Lists, although fortunately my own career has so far been free of these kind of challenges.

She is also on record as saying that she hopes the library will waive the paltry $85.00 in fines she accrued while making her point.  I think she’s lucky she’s not being charged with theft; a similar stunt from a bookstore would no doubt result in charges, regardless of whether the stock was recovered, and rightly so.

On a similar note, Dan Gutman, the author of the My Weird School series of short children’s novels, has a great article about novel content and censorship.  Gutman’s starting point is a letter from a concerned/outraged parent who accuses him of committing a “literary abomination”, which is a little harsh, and also makes me suspect that the parent in question has never read any of Dan Brown’s books.

Gutman makes many excellent points in his article, most strikingly to me:

“Nearly all the complaints I receive inform me that it’s my responsibility as an author to promote positive messages and moral lessons in my books. Honestly, that never even crossed my mind. I always thought it was the parent’s responsibility to raise their children.”

Well played, Mr Gutman.  The idea that every book for children and young adults should contain Important Messages or moral guidance is well-meaning but completely misguided, and has lead to the publication of some bog-awful books.  Children and young adults read for the same reasons that adults do, and should be allowed to do so without the wringing of adults hands concerned with whether they’re learning something or gaining moral guidance from everything they rake their eyes over.

The idea that we should ban or keep books away from children and teens because they might “get ideas” is a furphy.  The whole thing with books is that they’ve got ideas in them – it’s like banning them on the basis of that humourous euphemism “contains language”.  Of course it contains language.  It’s a bloody book.   But worrying that books alone will Corrupt Our Youth ignores the positive functions of literature, while ignoring that you can’t control the host of other factors that will influence children and teens, like, oh I don’t know, being a member of society.  One of the functions of literature is that has the potential to both complement and expand our experiences of the world.  Censoring books takes away people’s freedom to engage with that experience.  It generally doesn’t work in the long run (does Tina Harden really think that her daughters couldn’t read Gossip Girl anywhere else, or that the library couldn’t replace its copies of the books she stole?), and on the rare occasions when it does work, we are all poorer for that lack of intellectual freedom.  Especially those of us whom censors would seek to protect – children and youth, for whom books can be a fantastic tool for making sense of the world.