Professor Stone gives Talk: Banned Books & Intellectual Freedom; Shimer College: Bright Ideas Series


Let me introduce myself. I’m Barbara Stone, a faculty member at Shimer in humanities and German but have actually taught in all areas of the curriculum. I’m going to say a few words about the subject of Banned Books. I am going to approach it, at least to begin with, from a very broad perspective, looking at it historically, culturally, to give us some “food for thought.” Some days I can feel that there are no limits to humanity’s attempts to destroy, to eradicate, to erase its past, its own creations, that is, the things which humans have made – often defined as “culture” writ large. It’s easy to feel that way, if one contemplates, and dwells on, numerous attempts at the destruction of religious groups, their ideas and cultural practices; or if you think of all the monuments and artworks that bear witness to many of the beautiful things that the human spirit has created, but that have been destroyed; ; or if you think about attempts to obliterate telescopes because of the scientific discoveries they might/ or have led to, or closer to tonight’s subject, of the destruction of all sorts—from papyrus scrolls to mass-paperbacks. One need only think of the Holocaust, Nazi book burnings, the Inquisition, censorship all over the world, and most recently the destruction of archaeological sites in Palmyra to feel a sense of hopelessness about the human condition. But, as we celebrate Banned Books Week, let us keep in mind the contrary, the oppositional forces and movements, and the many hopes, dreams, and inspirations of humanity. Let us remember the writers’ and artists’ works that have been saved from human destruction (in all sorts of legal and illegal ways, I might add), whether it be the works of art in the Art Institute, the Sistine Chapel, the Gothic Cathedrals, artworks from the death camps in Auschwitz, art that permeated Berlin in the years when it was a divided city, or the audacity of individuals, the courage of those who snuck works out of Russia during the Communist era, or individuals who saved texts from destruction by Virgil, Kafka, and Emily Dickinson – to name just a few. It is in this spirit that we come together to pay tribute to the capacity of human thought and creativity to endure, to our species’ ability to promulgate ideas old and new, and to celebrate creative works against the forces that have historically worked towards their censorship and destruction. Tonight, we’re of course talking about, and reading from the written word. To move closer to home, to the United States, to a country which is explicitly committed to a free press, and the separation of church and state. This raises, to some extent, a different set of issues than in many other countries. But first, let me briefly remind you of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Banned Books Week was established (maybe co-founded—I’m not quite sure) in 1982 by (and I’m quoting) a “prominent First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug.” So, I just quoted from the Banned Books Week article on Wikipedia, a rather unscholarly thing for me to be doing—but I actually urge you to go to that website—you’ll find something surprising there, unless someone has already revised it since I last looked earlier today—and yes, I know somebody is going to take out their phone right now and check it out. The books that have been banned in this country is astonishing. But, in large part what is even more astonishing to me is that we aren’t dealing with “obscure works” of a pornographic nature, for example, or works that have had “notorious histories” of being published elsewhere, usually in Paris, and being secretly schlepped to the United States such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, or James Joyce’s Ulysses—works that were instrumental in the establishment of the criterion for obscenity laws in this country. Instead, we are talking about books that have become classics. The list is mindboggling. In 2012, the Library Congress sponsored an exhibit called “Books that Shaped America.” Here are a few of the books included in that list. I’ll give some short titles, not only due to time, but also as an indication of the extent to which these works have become household names to all of us; they have become classics and are among the most frequently read books in this country. So here goes: Huck Finn, Malcolm X, Beloved, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, Grapes of Wrath, Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Charlotte’s Web, The Feminine Mystique, Silent Spring, Moby Dick, Native Son, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and on it goes. Now, in each case, reasons are given for the banning of the specific book – usually specific use of language and topics to do with race, gender, class, and violence In most cases they were banned under the rationalization of either 1) spreading propaganda, or 2) protecting our youth from corruption. I just finished reading Plato’s Republic with a group of Shimer students, a work which explicitly discusses the issue of how to educate children to become citizens—one topic we have in common with that time. We are also reminded here of Socrates himself being accused of corrupting the youth. So, these issues have a long history. For this evening, I will take the easy way out and say—yes, this is a complicated issue, especially when it comes to education, and what one wants to expose children to at various ages. Yet, these decisions can be made within the confines of a free press, and need not attack the basic principles of the free exercise of thought, speech, and the press—founding principles of the US. For, let us be clear; the human spirit turns again and again to old ideas, and creates, generates new ideas: ideas do not die. Over and over, history reminds us that attempts to limit exposure to ideas do not last for long: there are always cracks in the facade, especially in the days of the internet. So, returning to the Greeks who already set the parameters for some of our discussion today, I shall end with an ever so slight nod to them. At the beginning of the Olympic Games, they would say, “Let the Games Begin.” This evening, I will say, “Let the Read-Out Begin.” Have a wonderful evening! [Applause]

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