Commentary: Book Banners Never Win | KERA News

Commentary: Book Banners Never Win

Dallas, TX –

There's probably no better advertisement for a book than banning it. When John Steinbeck heard that a small town in Oklahoma made a bonfire of The Grapes of Wrath he said it was the most books ever sold in that town.

Point being that book banners always go after books that tell the truth about people and treat adolescent problems realistically. Sometimes they even ban the authors. Caesar Augustus, a moralist, exiled Ovid the poet because The Art of Love taught Romans about sex. Voltaire was exiled from France - too seditious. Now, both are studied in colleges and revered. Salman Rushdie was condemned to death in 1989 by fundamentalist Muslims, who misunderstood his novel, Satanic Verses. For a decade he lived in hiding from religious assassins. He has been top tier for the Nobel Prize for several years.

Anyone reading history would know the futility of banning books, especially classics. At one time or another just about all classics have been banned by somebody. Anti-book warriors apparently believe that books, not book censors, are immoral.

Good books mirror life, and include, as in real life, characters who lie, curse, betray each other, cheat on their taxes, smoke cigarettes, gamble, drink liquor, shoot each other, have sex, overeat, hold to stupid ideas, and all other kinds of human folly. However, with today's easy TV and computer access to galaxies of egregious and gratuitous, irredeemable sex and violence, a cornucopia of pornography at their fingertips, it's understandable that some parents might expect the school to be the one place left where any whiff of such would be off-limits.

Sometimes readers in small towns want to ban a book simply because they think it reflects their town badly. Odessa, Texas, comes to mind, which piled on Friday Night Lights. Sauk Centre, Minnesota, same thing, about Main Street. When Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize the town loved him. Thomas Wolfe described the citizens of Asheville, North Carolina, a bit too closely in Look Homeward, Angel, and was afraid he couldn't go home again. These writers are now their towns' main attractions.

I'm used to anti-book campaigns happening somewhere else. But this time it happened in my hometown. Ken Follett's novel, The Pillars of the Earth, has been on the Cleburne High School reading list for several years and became an Oprah selection in 2007. It is about the building of a great cathedral in twelfth-century England and is his best book, most of his fans say. But some Cleburne parents suddenly believe a rape scene in it is too explicit, and illicit, for teenagers to read.

The superintendent and the school board met recently with a divided roomful of parents and others to debate the book's value. Earnest letters have filled the op-ed pages of the Cleburne Times Review. Moral warriors have the honor, on Sundays, of their letters appearing opposite a popular syndicated morals expert, Ann Coulter.

A committee will decide soon, but no matter what the outcome, book banners will lose. Sometimes they are undone by irony. In Conroe Texas, in 2006, a parent at Caney Creek High School tried to get Fahrenheit 451 banned. This is a book about book burning! Plus, the offended parent said he didn't realize it was National Banned Books Week.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.

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