Editor’s Note: In recognition of Banned Books Week, we’re running a special series of blog posts featuring AU staff members discussing their experiences with banned books. Americans United has opposed religiously based censorship since the organization’s founding in 1947 because religious extremists and their lawmaker allies should not dictate what books other people’s children are allowed to read. Learn more about the #UniteAgainstBookBans campaign, then share on social media (and tag us @americansunited) why you reject efforts to ban books.
When I hear an AC/DC song or someone mention Vonnegut, I have flashes of my teenage years during the height of the satanic panic. Whether you played the material forward or backward, Satan’s messages allegedly were being broadcast into the minds of teens by rock bands and immoral authors. Listen to rock music and you would become a “Satan worshipper.” Play “Dungeons and Dragons” and you’d end up possessed by demons. Read anything that challenged the conservative, white, male, Christian perspective and you were bound for Hell and damnation.
The church I grew up in had regular book and record burnings on Sunday nights. I specifically remember losing a Barry Manilow 8-track (with a steamy, open-shirt cover) and my secret copy of “Slaughterhouse-Five” to the burn pile. These burnings however had the reverse effect; they only made me want to rebel more – to read more books and listen to more music.
For me, reading banned books was an exhilarating experience. I felt an intoxicating mix of fear and guilt for reading them (would I really become possessed?) combined with a thrill of doing something “morally dangerous” and living to tell about it. I developed a voracious appetite for everything forbidden. The public librarian in my hometown would call my mother if she saw me reading anything controversial, so my friends and I developed an underground book club of sorts and passed used, tattered copies of whatever contraband was hot between us.
Reading books like “The Awakening,” “The Color Purple,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” threw the doors of my mind wide open. Family members still blame books I read in my youth for my queer, atheist “lifestyle.”
And that is the real issue – free thinking is threatening to fundamental religions, oppressive social traditions, and extremist political philosophies. Reading books that challenge us opens us. They show us we are not alone. They free our imaginations. Any book that introduces a young mind to a new way of thinking or living or being is dangerous – not to the reader’s soul but to the status quo.
One of my favorite lines from “The Hate You Give” is, “What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?” Literary freedom gives us voice and courage. It teaches us we are not alone in our experiences or identities. It introduces us to new perspectives and strengthens our empathy. And these shared experiences and new ideas fuel our social progress.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness includes reading books without bans.