You will probably never have a police officer snatch a book out of your hand; SWAT is extraordinarily unlikely to break down your door to get at your stash of literature; it’s practically certain that you’ll never see the inside of a jail cell on account of your choice of reading material. Since the days of your grandparents’ youth, when a stray hip-wiggle by Elvis could cause more official opprobrium than anything Miley Cyrus could ever dream of doing on stage, and a Kirk-on-Uhura smooch deprived all of Alabama of Star Trek’s original run, governments at all levels in the U.S. have become much less interested in limiting what you can read, hear, and see.
Your freedom to read is still under fire, though. Everyone knows what they enjoy reading; if you ask, many even have some good suggestions as to what you might want to read, too. Some folks, though, have an excellent picture in their head of what they DON’T want you to read. In a perfect world, they might just keep their opinions to themselves until asked. However, being free to speak is at least as important as being free to read, and so they can and do make their opinions known, and do so with surprising frequency and predictability by asking libraries to remove books from their collections.
And what do these anti-you-reading-stuff-they-don’t-like activists want you to not-read? It’s a big list, and it grows constantly. Books you are now assigned in class were and still are challenged regularly: The Jungle, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Books you read when you were younger get the stinkeye, too: Where The Wild Things Are, The Stupids, and Gossip Girl. In fact, the #1 most challenged series of books of 2012 was… Captain Underpants.
So what’s so objectionable in these books anyway? Because offense is in the eye of the beholder, the stated rationales for challenging books vary widely with reasons coming from right and left alike. Perennial favorites include fostering disrespect for authority and promoting violence, drug use, or sex. In recent years, new books with LGBT characters have become popular targets as have much older works which carry racial stereotypes that were common when they were published. In the past, though, a whole form of book was almost destroyed by people who didn’t like them.
Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham campaigned against comic books in the mid-1950s, writing a book of his own, Seduction of the Innocent, to promote his cause. In his work with troubled teens, he noticed that one of the things they had in common was that they all read comics.
hen he did look at them, he imagined that Batman was molesting Robin, that Wonder Woman was a lesbian, and that smut of all sorts could be seen in the bark of background trees and in the headlights of cars; he saw the popular crime and horror comics of the day not as morality tales or illustrated campfire stories, but rather as how-to guides to murder. His book got the attention of the U.S. Senate, which held hearings about the comic book menace. The mood created by this official investigation caused the comic book industry to censor itself for decades under the Comics Code Authority. Only recently have the crime and horror genres returned to the major publishers, most notably with The Walking Dead, which has since become a popular TV series.
This week, September 22 - 28, is Banned Books Week, when we celebrate the freedom to read as we choose. Right in the middle of it, on Wednesday, September 25, is Comic Book Day, as good a day as any to crack open one of your library’s many fine examples of the artform, and see what Dr. Wertham was so afraid of.
- RET3, Guest Blogger
*with apologies to Parson Martin Niemöller