Banned Books Week kicks off with reading of suspect texts

MIDDLEBURY — What do Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck all have in common? All are world-renowned authors with some of the most widely recognized works translated into multiple languages, and their works are also some of the most widely censored, challenged or banned.
But this Tuesday, seven Vermont writers gathered at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury to read from those authors’ best works — for precisely that reason.
“It’s almost a compliment when you think about it,” said Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Powers of having a book banned, adding that he considered censorship or being banned to be tantamount to assassination — a sure route to immortality.
“I’ve never had either happen to me, but there’s always hope,” Powers said.
Tuesday evening’s reading event, called “The Evening Without,” was part of Banned Books Week, an annual September observation sponsored by the American Library Association. It was first marked in 1982 to celebrate the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion, even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular.
The event’s emcee, Virginia Lindauer Simmon, an ACLU-Vermont board member and past president, introduced the materials as well as their rank on the American Libraries Association’s list of frequently banned books.
Each of the invited writers shared observations on the nature of censorship and negative reactions to their own works.
Powers read an excerpt from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — a book that Powers said has consistently been challenged for its “street vernacular,” “coarse behavior” and 209 uses of the n-word.
Lincoln novelist Chris Bohjalian shared an experience when his editor called him in 2001 with some good news and bad news. A newspaper in Mississippi had written an article about him, however it had labeled him a “pornographer” and wanted his then-recent novel “Transistor Radio” removed from the local high school’s library.
Bohjalian read from John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Published in 1939, the book was criticized as “filthy,” and promoting “class hatred.”
Tanya Lee Stone, author of nearly 100 books, was called a “smut peddler” in a letter from an outraged parent after her young adult novel, “A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl,” tackled teen sexuality. Rather than encouraging bad behavior, Stone said books are intended to be cautionary tales.
“I think a lot of the books that are challenged, censored or banned are really safe havens for us human beings wandering around wondering who we want to be and how we get there,” she said.
Stone read from the Toni Morrison novel “Beloved” and an excerpt from “Burn This Book,” which Morrison edited.
Other readings included James Tabor reading from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which earned Orwell the title of “Communist”; Dana Yeaton reading Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which came under fire for its “unpatriotic portrayal of war”; Kathryn Davis reading Maya Angelou’s autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”; and Ashley Wolff reading two excerpts from Katherine Peterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia” and the essay “On Censorship.”
“I know that when a book is challenged, I will not be the one that suffers,” Peterson writes. “It will be the teacher or librarian who is called upon to defend what I have written and stand in the line of fire. They are true heroes to me, the guardians of the constitutional freedoms that make this country great. I admire them more than I can say. If we lose their witness, we will have lost democracy itself.”
Simmon also highlighted more recent examples of attempts to remove books from libraries, including two examples in Vermont. In 1979 in Vergennes, parents complained about content in Richard Price’s “The Wanderer” and Patrick Mann’s “Dog Day Afternoon.” The issue was resolved with the books being placed in the “reserved” section at the Vergennes Union High School library, away from student access. In 1981, five parents in Richford requested “The Grapes of Wrath” be removed from the high school library. The Vermont ACLU threatened a lawsuit and after review by the school, the book was permitted to stay.
Following Tuesday’s reading, a handful of visitors remained for a discussion.
David Clark, retired director of the Ilsley Library in Middlebury, said the majority of complaints he received in his tenure were not about classic works like the ones read that evening. However he said concerns of patrons regarding content must be respected.
“It’s easy in some ways to laugh at people who want to ban books,” he said. “But my experience has been sometimes they are sincere and thoughtful people and you have to work that out with them.”
The removal of works from public libraries in Addison County is rare. Libraries adhere to The Freedom to Read Statement, which was originally endorsed in 1953 by the American Libraries Association and the Association of American Publishers. Area libraries also rely on formalized request forms when a patron objects to content on the shelves.
But at the Ilsley Library, the request to reconsider form was revised in 2010 and has still yet to be completed and submitted by a patron.
“The bigger issue may be the risk of self censorship,” said Chris Kirby, Ilsley’s adult services librarian. “I think that’s something that we have to be aware of as the curators of the library.”
Nancy Wilson has worked as a librarian at the Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol for nearly 25 years. In that time, the library has never had to remove one of its 14,000 titles; the institution adopted a formal procedure for removing books in 2007. Patrons who object to material must submit a form and describe specifically what they found offensive, who they think the appropriate reader should be and the intention of the work.
“In Vermont, people understand that we’re not acting as parents,” Wilson said.
Alison James from Shelburne, a parent and author of a children’s book and two novels, attended the Tuesday evening reading. James said she takes an active interest in what her teenage daughters read. Some books are more age-appropriate than others and she has no objections to making that distinction.
“That’s not banning a book, that’s showing discretion about how a book might affect an individual,” she said. “Banning a book takes a book off the shelves of the library for everybody including the people who might need to read that book.”

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