Banned Books Week arrives every September to raise awareness about censorship, past and present. The annual series usually manifests in campaigns by bookstores, libraries, and schools to identify titles that have been yanked from shelves, while sales of Ray Bradbury’s seminal Fahrenheit 451 are bound to spike. It seems a noble effort overall, but showing images of old redacted texts and addressing free speech issues through marketing misses the point of what Banned Books Week should be all about: the hierarchy of information distribution.
When you consider certain books that have been widely “banned” in some way at one time or another, you’ll discover that the contexts of their controversies are much murkier than is commonly acknowledged. Take Fahrenheit 451, for example. As Bradbury lamented in his later years, even his perennial bestseller on these matters was once briefly altered by a school teacher to remove the damns and hells. In that case and innumerable others, works weren’t challenged by the U.S. government, or by the states, but were rather desecrated based on the moral standings of an authority figure.
Even as we relish the Internet Era, the information that finds us is highly controlled by others—especially for young people. It’s not only that important and contrarian media is being withheld, but rather that it’s being gutted outright in some cases. In this sense we are all completely subject to an arbitrary authority, one that seeks to limit the flow of ideas. Information passes many hands before it reaches you—if it reaches you at all.
This week, take some time to look at who has that authority in your life. Do you surrender to a single news organization? Or do you cross-reference? Are you reading only what is on your syllabus? Or are you looking elsewhere? Not everyone who wields this power has a vested interest in allowing healthy dissent to get through. Maybe not even the imprint trying to sell you something for Banned Books Week.