‘Mockingbird’ can’t sing if it’s not on shelves

When the creators of the United States Constitution crafted the First Amendment that includes, among other things, freedom of speech, who knew that the debate on that freedom would extend to books? I’m not just talking about the blistering critique of the Trump administration in journalist Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear.” I’m talking about the beloved classic Harper Lee novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which I read in high school.

The first example is derided by critics who claim the non-fiction tome has more made-up nonsense than a novel written by any Tom, Dick or Harry. The second is a story told through the eyes of a child about racial inequality in the United States in the 1950s. I have not heard of any instances of “Fear” being banned in any bookstores or public libraries, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a perennial source of scorn from people who feel it should not be in the public purview.

What are the sins of “To Kill a Mockingbird”? The American Libraries Association, in its list of top 10 most challenged books in 2017, said the book was criticized for violence and its use of the N-word.

It’s these attempts at censorship that prompted the ALA in 1982 to start Banned Books Week, a week to celebrate books that dare to break traditional molds, to warn about the danger of picking and choosing what people are allowed to read, and to get in people’s faces about the reality that — for all our pride and bragging about being a free country — there are still plenty of folks out there who see freedom as a limited entity.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is far from the only book threatened. Sherman Alexie wrote “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in 2007, which drew instant acclaim and fame. He was a keynote speaker at this year’s UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay, but his book — second on the ALA’s top 10 list last year — was challenged and/or banned because there was profanity in it, along with situations that were sexually explicit.

Many of the books that are challenged or banned today are due to language, matters of sexuality and gender identity, and depictions of violence. The recently convicted Bill Cosby was already seeing his series of books, “Little Bill,” get yanked from bookshelves in 2016 as sexual assault allegations mounted; his books were ninth on the top 10 list that year.

The “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “The Hunger Games” movies were immensely popular when they came out in theaters. The books that the movies are based on have made the top 10 lists many times over the years.

Even the Holy Bible, a source of enlightenment, has been banned from bookshelves because of its religious viewpoint. It made number six on the ALA’s top 10 list in 2015.

The first time I learned about Banned Books Week was in college. The library at the community college I went to had an event where people read from books that had been banned at one time or another. It was certainly eye-opening to me that someone could keep a particular book from the masses.

Back when I was in college, the internet was still developing. If you wanted to read a book, you purchased it from a bookstore or read it in a library. Today, with online commerce booming, you can simply go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and find almost any book currently in print, and efforts to keep anything deemed controversial or immoral from even the tiniest of towns are almost futile.

It still happens, though. The fact that there’s still a top 10 list on the ALA’s website proves it. The ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom recorded 354 challenges to library, school and university materials in 2017, an increase from the 323 challenges in 2016 and 275 in 2015.

It irks me that this still happens, not only as a journalist but as a published author myself. Having published 16 books in the last decade, seeing the list of banned books makes it clear that any of mine could easily be removed from public libraries like the Shawano County Library.

Some of the characters in my novels curse, many of them are gay, and since seven of them are murder mysteries, a few characters have met a horrifying and violent end. One or two of the books have even addressed racism. All of these are reasons other books have been banned. I must really be a twisted individual.

No, simply enlightened. I’ve read since I was 3½ years old, a fact my mother brags about to this day. I try to read daily, even if it’s just information off the internet. I have a stack of books still waiting to be read. I’ve found a few books hard to stomach, but I simply found something else to read.

I read because knowledge is power, and a well-educated society is the most terrifying thing that small-minded people and organizations can face. An often-cited reason for banning a book is because it might put certain ideas into people’s heads. That’s the point of most books, so unless the censors plan on emptying out the libraries and making bookstores the speakeasies of the 21st century, they should follow Aaron Rodgers’ example — crack open some Scotch, have a drink and move on.

Banned Books Week for 2018 ends Saturday. Celebrate by cracking open a book (or revving up your Kindle). Read different kinds of books and open yourself to new ideas. Lend some books you’ve already read to others. Let’s remind those who believe censorship is OK that this is still America and that freedom is not something you can take away without a fight.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for The Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com.