Banned Books Week 2011

20110926-071232.jpgOver in the States it’s Banned Books Week, run by the American Library Association to celebrate and promote freedom of speech. It’s worrying that such a celebration is actually needed, and as someone who’s always been a reader, I was curious to find out how many of the titles appearing on the ALA’s list of ‘Books Challenged or banned in 2010-11’ I’ve actually read (not many as it turns out, although bannings depend on context – here’s why Charlotte’s Web got banned in Kuwait).

Like most of us, I guess, the idea of banning books, especially in long-established democracies, feels wrong. It’s thin-end-of-the-wedge stuff; ban a book because of bad language or a sex scene and suddenly you’ve set a precedent for the next person who comes along wanting to ban something because it’s politically inconvenient or because it promotes manmade climate change. Librarians are on the frontline of this particular battle, but this has ramifications for a world where public funds to libraries are being cut at a rate of knots. Will privatised libraries have that same dedication to freedom of speech, or will the potential threat to profit margins be more influential? It’s a question worth asking.

But then, banning books is only part of the issue. Somewhere along the line the Internet got intelligent; now personalisation is its watchword and news, search results and retail recommendations get filtered based on our ‘preferences’. And sure, this can be convenient but it runs the risk of turning the internet, the great electronic frontier into a billion echo-chambers, one for each of us. Cyberia has become Cyburbia, and that’s when we become digital NIMBYs. Not purposefully, maybe not even knowingly, but sel-selection and software conspired to keep us disengaged from all those other voices out there. At least we can see when someone tries to ban us from reading a book.

(For example, look at the phrasing I used a couple of paragraphs ago. I’m not a fan of swearing at all, but calling it ‘bad language’ sets up a dichotomy that I’m not entirely comfortable with – what exactly would count as ‘good’ language?)

But this is my pessimistic streak coming out. As long as there are passionate, dedicated readers and librarians out there, literature and journalism will have their defenders. Saturday saw the Word on the Street festival hit Toronto; the Hay Festival does a similar job in the UK and around the world. Voices will be heard; words will be read. And no stories that get banned stay banned.

Because while information may or may not want to be free, stories always do.

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