Thursday, October 21, 2021

Banned books event promotes freedom to read

 Adeeb Chowdhury

The Feinberg Library hosted the annual Banned Books Read-Out event Wednesday, Sept 29. Taking place virtually on Zoom, the event recognized a number of books that have been widely banned or challenged while also promoting the freedom of reading and information.

The Banned Books Read-Out has been organized by the library every year for about a decade. This year, it was co-sponsored by the fraternity Phi Iota Alpha. A number of students from the fraternity, joined by students from two classes that have been studying banned books as well as members of the Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society, took turns reading five-minute excerpts from books that have sparked controversy and often been taken off the shelves. 

Elin O’Hara-Gonya, the assistant library director, notes that there are countless books in a wide range of genres and reading levels that have elicited outrage from various communities nationwide as well as around the world. 

“Every year, the American Library Association tracks challenges to books,” O’Hara-Gonya said. “They report hundreds of challenges annually, but there is speculation that the true number is much, much higher.”

She also made sure to distinguish between a challenge to a book, which is an objection raised by a community member toward the book, and the outright banning of it.

For three days before the actual event, the Feinberg Library hosted a table in the ACC dedicated to banned books. Arranged by intern Nydia Chisholm, the table provided an opportunity for visitors to write a brief thank-you note to the author of a banned book “whose work is of personal significance to them”. The library then delivered the notes to the authors to recognize their contributions to the freedom to read.

“It was so fascinating and fun to be able to put together a table like this,” Chisholm said. “Our mission here is to promote a very basic freedom — the freedom to read. Sadly that freedom has been challenged often, and it is our duty to defend it.”

Junior Alex Borodin emphasized how special it felt to be able to send a message to one of his favorite authors.

“It’s so unfortunate that some of my favorite writers have had their books be challenged and banned like this,” Borodin said. “But I want to reach out and express just how grateful I am for what they do.”

O’Hara-Gonya shredded a few pages from a copy of “Beloved” by Toni Morisson, a book that has been widely challenged. Any visitor who could guess what book it was from the shredded pages received a “swag bag” of materials related to banned books.

She also spoke on the deeper social roots of banning books.

“Banning books is unfortunately more common in communities that can be described as more socially conservative,” she said. “There are a lot of challenges to books that deal with promoting diverse viewpoints. For example, many parents object to expressions of the lived experiences of the LGBQIA+ community.”

The topmost banned book this year was the young adult novel “George”, which tells the story of a young transgender girl named Melissa, who was previously a boy named George. Numerous objections were also raised against “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s book about the true story of two male penguins raising a child together in Central Park Zoo.

Another commonly challenged book was “The Hate U Give,” which deals with interactions between Black Americans and law enforcement. According to O’Hara-Gonya, the book was challenged because some people believed it would “create tension” between police officers and people of color.

“It’s very distressing, and I use that word intentionally,” she said. “It’s distressing to see how some people fight so hard to block others from telling their stories and sharing their experiences.”

O’Hara-Gonya pointed out that this is not a recent phenomenon, and it doesn’t only apply to recent books. In fact, some of the most commonly challenged books are classics published generations ago. Examples include “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Catcher in the Rye” and “Of Mice and MeN,” all of which were written between the 1930s and ‘60s. 

The Harry Potter series is also frequently challenged as it is perceived to promote witchcraft, which O’Hara-Gonya noted is particularly saddening, given how popular the series is and how it encouraged so many children to take an interest in reading.

Novels by popular young adult author John Green, such as “Paper Towns” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” are also common victims of challenges and bans. The bestselling book “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” makes the list as well, having sparked outrage because of its themes dealing with sex, drugs, and violence. 

Books by Judy Blume have also been subject to objections and bans. Her works often dealt with “controversial topics of masturbation, menstruation, teen sex, birth control and death,” according to the American Library Association.

The 1922 book “Siddhartha” as well as the 2005 novel “The Glass Castle” were also on the list of books that were read out during the event. 

“It’s OK if people don’t want to expose their children to particular themes until a certain age,” O’Hara-Gonya said. “But don’t take away the rights of other people to read that book and access that information.” 

She recommended that students patronize the public library as much as possible, pointing out that they can use their student ID at the Plattsburgh Public Library. This support, she said, goes a long way to encourage reading and allows for public libraries to stay open, ultimately giving more people access to books.

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