What Makes Books Dangerous?

by Jenn Monroe

This is the question I pose to students in my Banned Books course as their final exam. I ask because I know they are hungry to tell me why sexuality, race, religion, and politics fire people up, and what the attitudes toward censorship indicate about the interplay between these things.

We’ve been talking about this since day one, when I gave each student the list of the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books. They were not surprised to find many of their favorite authors—J.K. Rowling, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut—or noted classics—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye—but others totally shocked them: “Who would want to ban Captain Underpants?”

Literature has been suppressed since at least the advent of the printing press, and for one (or a combination) of four “reasons:” religious, political, sexual, or social. While few books in the U.S. are actually banned today, ALA statistics show many are challenged every year. The majority of these challenges are made to materials in schools or school libraries, by parents.

These figures do not seem to surprise my class. Collectively they express an understanding of a mother wanting to shield her own child, but they bristle at the idea of complete censorship. Some ask how banning can be possible with “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. What perplexes most, however, is why anyone would care about what they wanted to read.

As we begin to read, the answer takes shape. To examine literature suppressed on religious grounds we read Confucious, Kant, Darwin, Luther, Goethe, and Nawal El Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve. Then we tackle those suppressed for political reasons: Machiavelli, Marx, and Dalton Trumbo’s, Johnny Got His Gun. Next, we move to those considered obscene: Go Ask Alice, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. We end the semester with one text suppressed for “social” reasons: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Along the way we take up the “free speech” question considering cases from recent news and Nat Hentoff’s Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. At the end of his prologue Hentoff welcomes readers with this: “As you will see in the chapters ahead, censorship…remains the strongest drive in human nature, with sex a weak second.”  We also debate Stanley Fish’s There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing Too. In his introduction he argues “…the First Amendment does not in and of itself…direct a politics but will display the political ‘spin’ of whatever group has its hand on the interpretative machinery…”

In the early days of book banning, religious leaders and monarchs alike maintained control of vast populations as long as they controlled the messages about God and country. It was in their best interest to ban, and burn, contradictory texts (and often their authors). Later, more democratic governments concerned about obscenity and controlling the spread of Communism, banned texts that promoted those ideas.

My students see the relationship between controlling messages and power, and agree this cannot be the reason why individuals work to remove books they deem dangerous. Eventually we decide people must feel threatened by texts that offer ideas counter to their own. This, however, confounds my students even more. Most say they have read materials they disagree with, yet they did not, and would never, try to ban them.

Thus another question arises: how does someone move from simply holding a different opinion about sex, religion, politics, race, gender, etc. to pushing for a ban on the materials that put forth another perspective? What is so scary about diverse ideas? What are they afraid will happen?

I am lucky. My students are all studying to become creative writers or visual artists, and most of them were allowed to read whatever books they found interesting. Few come from dogmatic backgrounds, and if they did, they have done enough individual exploration to come to my class with a wide-open mind.

Because of this, it is not easy for them to grasp that many people find the unfamiliar scary and often reject “the other” out of protection. One could assume, however, the more experience with people and ideas that are different, the less frightening they would become.

But are we naturally drawn toward those experiences?

I ask my students how often they read articles or listen to programs that offer ideas, beliefs, and opinions that differ from their own. Then I ask them to consider whether or not the messages that support their thinking offer facts to bolster their opinions or simply deny the validity of “other” ideas. Do they promote their position as “right” and others as “wrong?”

We take it further: what would happen if we chose to censor all other points of view? If we insulated ourselves only with messages and people who agree with us, closing ourselves off from opportunities to learn about alternate approaches. Would we ever overcome our fear of difference? Would we ever not feel the need to protect those we love?

From this perspective, a book that promotes a reality counter to our own is inherently dangerous. It is a direct threat to our core beliefs and suppressing it would appear the most effective way to keep it from doing any harm to our family and community.

My students understand, but they cannot accept how someone could ever be that afraid. I know their struggle is personal—they cannot see themselves taking that step—so I joke that if they want to be famous, they should write a book that will be banned. We laugh, but I silently wish none of them will ever need to.

Jenn Monroe’s Banned Books course syllabus

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What Makes Books Dangerous?

WOUND, EXHIBIT, CALL

by Quinn White

I began in my car. Summer. I was under few obligations and had time for sunshine, music, current events and my friends’ discussions of current events. More rancor than usual rang through their talk of social issues. On days of court decisions and death, days which were every day, I witnessed diatribes, litanies, incantations. Less than a week would pass when photos of cats, babies, and ornately plated dinners buried these passions. I knew people remained upset. I believed their dissent belonged to a space sturdier than that provided by social media. I began in my car, in the strong July light, wondering if an anthology of protest poetry could provide such a space.

I asked around to gauge interest in the anthology and was greeted with enthusiasm and offers of support. Now we’re building an artifact of diverse voices of dissent. We’re placing our words before the world as a marker to say we believe, we don’t accept, we speak against the noise of a rolling feed of commercials for bigger sandwiches, of gavels over gavels over gunfire, gunfire and bombs we’ve heard through our various radios, heard so often that war is played in restaurants and people continue eating and chatting about car parts. We write against the silence the noise presses us to assume.

What do we write? Protest poetry is aimed against an authority’s wrongs. It is written in a rhetoric whose intent is to excite readers to action. Protest poetry is a genre of wild indignation. Yet it can mourn simple as a lily. Protest poems are loud. Yet they whisper rage. Some shout like spotlights in interrogation rooms. Some tear language, slice tongues to rip issues. Many ask why without posing questions. The moves of protest poems are varied, surprising.

Working on the anthology has expanded my concept of protest poetry in ways I didn’t anticipate. In Martín Espada’s poem, “The Soldiers in the Garden,” a dying Pablo Neruda is interrogated by a lieutenant and Neruda says “There is only one danger for you here: poetry.” The soldiers, contrite, leave through the garden. Espada writes, “For thirty years / we have been searching / for another incantation / to make the soldiers / vanish from the garden.” The Neruda in Espada’s poem does not shout. The soldiers apologize. The lanterns in the trees dissolve. The poem is a wish against occupation. A wish for words. It does not shout. Yet it protests.

A rowdier protest poem comes from 2300 B.C. The writer is Enheduanna. In A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now (Schocken Books, 1980) Enheduanna’s work is described as “highly politicized.” Consider her poem, “Appeal to the Moongod Nanna-Suen to Throw Out Lugalanne, the New Conqueror of the City of Uruk”

O Suen, the usurper Lugalanne means nothing to me!
Tell An: “Have An release me!”
If you will only tell An
“NOW!”
and An will release me.
This woman Inanna will carry off this young cock
Lugalanne.
Mountain and flood lie at her feet.
This woman is powerful as he.
She’ll make the city expel him.
Surely she will forget her rage against me.
Let me, Enheduanna, pray to her.
Like a sweet drunk let me cry freely for holy
Inanna!
Let me call to her!

Enheduanna’s poem shouts “NOW!” It demands the reader, specifically Inanna, to take action. Enheduanna writes in the midst of extreme circumstances. This is perhaps the earliest known protest poem.

Looking to the twenty first century, I see in Mazen Maarouf’s “S.O.S,” a speaker who does not shout, but says, “My voice / Is plain bread / I dream / of distributing it / among my exhausted enemies..” Empathy belongs to protest. Even as the poem later mentions violence: “a dog’s throat / whose soft barking / was run over by a tricycle.” “S.O.S” hurts. Yet what does it protest? In order to enter the political realm of a protest poem, one needs context, knowledge of the author and his or her circumstances. However, the best protest poems shake their readers with and without such context. From B.C. to A.D., the strongest protest poems share an ambidexterity.

Due to such shifts in manner and content, composing a definition of protest poetry is difficult. I searched for the right words and decided on wound and exhibit. In “Passport,” Mahmoud Darwish writes “my wound was an exhibit.” But if I stuck with wound and exhibit, I wondered how protest poetry would be represented as different from confessional poetry? The difference, I concluded, is that the protest poem inspires its readers to action against a wound. On purpose. The poem asks, however obliquely, for change. The poem needs its audience. Urgently. So three words belong to a definition of the protest poem: wound, exhibit, and call. The wounds are often political. The exhibits take many forms. The calls belong to different voices, different pitches, and different volumes.

I began in my car. I was listening to Stevie Wonder. Maybe the song was “Sir Duke” or “Higher Ground.” I don’t like telling this story. I wish I had a dramatic event to recount, that a comet’s tail set my house on fire and I believed then that I would die and that I must do something with my life. But, no. I was thinking of music. How albums protest. A book should exist, I thought, a mixed tape or a playlist of poems that make cases, a book that ensures voices are not forgotten among reels of donut innovation and purring squirrels*.

In her introduction to the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, Carolyn Forché writes that “monstrous acts have come to seem almost normal. It becomes easier to forget than to remember, and this forgetfulness becomes our defense against remembering—a rejection of unnecessary sentimentality, a hardheaded acceptance of ‘reality.’ […] These poems will not permit us diseased complacency. They come to us with claims that have yet to be filled, as attempts to mark us as they have themselves been marked.” The protest poem injures with its injuries. It is not the sound of marching. It is not, as Forché puts it, “an aerial attack […] One has to read or listen, one has to be willing to accept the trauma.”

For a long time, I did not read, listen, or write much about social issues. I felt helpless, small, and travesty was du jour. While working on the anthology, I wondered how I traveled here, how I became involved with protest poetry. I remember now. How simple. I began by listening.

*no offense is meant to donut innovation or purring squirrels.

WOUND, EXHIBIT, CALL