Banned Books Week in the 21st century

banned_books2Get out your party hats and reading lights. If it's the last week of September, it's Banned Books Week. This is the annual awareness campaign that draws attention to censorship. From the American Library Association:

Intellectual freedom--the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular--provides the foundation for Banned Books Week. BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them.

I mean, this could not be less controversial. Or at least I hope it couldn't be. But there are a few things that are interesting about the coverage of the event, which is cosponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Let's look at Time's coverage. The headline, which I would like you to keep in mind, is:

Censorship in Modern Times

How modern? Well, the first book on the list is Candide, published in 1759. Others include, well, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and George Orwell's 1984. You get the idea. (Isn't it interesting that these lists of banned books are always sugar-sweet like this? It's not like you ever see someone wearing one of those "I Read Banned Books" t-shirts illustrated with the book jackets of the Turner Diaries or Mein Kampf or whatever).

Anyway, when I think of pressing issues of censorship, I think of Mark Twain. Don't you? When I think of the plight of authors who express unpopular ideas, I think of J.K. Rowling and her undervalued Harry Potter series (also on the list because a small group of parents in Maine once publicly attacked their copies of the book with scissors). I mean, I'm sure we all know how difficult it is to get one's hands on Harry Potter books. They're practically impossible to find.

But I should give Time a break. It's not like there's anything more newsworthy or current for Time to report than U.S. Customs seizing Harvard-bound copies of Candide in . . . 1930.

Unless you think censorship happening this year is more timely.

Call me crazy, but maybe during Banned Books Week we should be looking at the story of how Yale University censored Jytte Klausen's book "The Cartoons That Shook the World":

Yale University has removed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from an upcoming book about how they caused outrage across the Muslim world, drawing criticism from prominent alumni and a national group of university professors.

Yale cited fears of violence.

Iread Seriously, what is more threatening -- a handful of Maine yahoos and their scissors? Or a major university self-censoring an academic book over fears of widespread violence? What's more troublesome for Time -- the fact that some people tried to keep coarse language away from juveniles (that's what most of these "censorship" claims are about -- people attempting to limit juvenile exposure to bomb-making cookbooks, etc.) or that publishing houses are getting firebombed when they issue books that some Muslims don't like?

That's what happened at the home of Martin Rynja, owner of Gibson Square publishing house. That outfit dared release The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones' historical novel about the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride Aisha. And what about Random House? That American publisher had inked a two-book, $100,000 deal with Jones. But, fearing "acts of violence by a small, radical segment," abandoned its publishing plans.

But for Time magazine, the latest target of Muslim violence that it noticed was, I kid you not, The Satanic Verses. That was published during the Reagan Administration.

And for good measure, let's just note the way Time began it's special package on banned books:

The tradition began as a nod to how far society has come since 1557, when Pope Paul IV first established The Index of Prohibited Books to protect Catholics from controversial ideas. Pope Paul VI would abolish it 409 years later, although attempts at censorship still remain.

Yes, because when I think of religiously motivated suppression of "controversial" ideas, I think of Pope Paul IV before I think of, say, the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy that led to riots resulting in more than 100 deaths and the attacks on Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Don't you?

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