Monday, September 29, 2008

Just in Time for Banned Books Week . . .

London news sources are reporting that the home of a Dutch publisher who will be releasing a novel about Aisha, Mohammed's wife, was the target of a firebombing. Police arrested three men in the attack.

The novel, Jewel of Medina, by American author Sherry Jones was nearing publication in the US with Random House when the reaction of an early reader led the publisher to cancel its publication. Some criticized Random House for the decision.

Banned Books Week "emphasizes the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them." David Ulin, Books Editor for the L.A. Times, has an interesting essay on this "thorny issue."
What happens when our ideals require us to defend a piece of writing that is reprehensible, that stands against everything we stand for?

It's easy to condemn those who would remove "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from a library, but what about "The Turner Diaries" or "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion"? Or for that matter, "Tintin in the Congo," which Little, Brown dropped from its "Tintin" reissue series last fall after controversy arose about the book's racist overtones?

These are not just academic questions; they are the heart of the matter, regardless of where you stand on the ideological divide. How do we defend one book without defending all? Such a notion can't help but make us uneasy, but then, that's one of the most essential things books can do. . . . Yet we forget the world is complicated, that it is full of opposing viewpoints and beliefs that, in many cases, we can't accommodate, at our own peril. What to do, then? Sweep them under the rug? Or face them and consider what we're up against?

This is the conversation we ought to be having during Banned Books Week, a conversation that encompasses not just a love of reading and a disdain for those who would restrict it but also the implications of the free flow of ideas. Even the most horrific things have something to teach us, something about human darkness, our capacity to go wrong. . . . if books don't make us uncomfortable, they're not doing their job.

To call that a mixed blessing is an understatement in a world where a work like "Mein Kampf" can continue to exert its awful pull. And yet to suggest otherwise is to declare that writing is unessential, which is even worse.

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