A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Those who make the choice not to read have no advantage over those who can’t

In 1986, the Graves County school district banned the reading of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” based on the charge that it was offensive, obscene, and took the Lord’s name in vain. The ban was later reversed after negative media attention and intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union, but the next year the Faulkner novel was again the target of a proposed ban in Somerset, Kentucky. Once again, profanity was a problem, along with one character’s “contemplation of masturbation,” according to the Kentucky Library Association.

In 1996, the Marshall County school superintendent had the offending pages of a science textbook glued together so 5th and 6th graders would not learn about the Big Bang theory if Creationism were not also covered. According to the National Center for Science Education, the school official declared, “We’re not going to teach one theory and not teach another theory.”

He also affirmed that the decision had “nothing to do with censorship or anything like that.”

Like it or not, controversy over books is a year-round discussion. In recognition of Banned Books Week, the American Library Association recently released a list of the top banned and challenged books in schools and libraries around the country.

At the top this year is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which tells the story of a 19th century Kentucky woman who kills her daughter so she will not have to endure the cruelties of slavery. Another familiar title on the list of the forbidden is “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” written in 1865 by Lewis Carroll.

Some readers with heightened sensitivities see Alice as advocating drug use, a criticism perhaps legitimized in the 1960s with the Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit.” You remember the lyrics: “One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small …Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall…”

Africa’s great writer Chinua Achebe is almost at the top of the charts. His masterwork, “Things Fall Apart” deals with British colonialism, Christian missionaries, and their tragic impact on the main character, Okonkwo, who opts for suicide over being tried in a colonial court.

To be fair, I’ve never read many of the books cited but the descriptions are intriguing. There is “George,” by Alex Gino, featuring a young protagonist who is transgender. “Persepolis,” a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, is a coming of age story of a family living in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. In 2013, the Chicago public school system directed teachers and librarians to stop teaching the book, prompting the author to remark that the only place her novel was censored before was in Iran.

Not surprisingly, books that deal with race, sex, drugs, gender, suicide, war, poverty, and politics tend to ruffle feathers that fan the fires of censorship. Rather than forbid readers to taste the forbidden fruit, another way to spark energetic discussion of controversial books is the National Endowment for the Arts grant project called The Big Read. Since 2006, the project has funded more than 1,400 community programs, providing more than $19 million to organizations nationwide.

Big Read activities have reached every Congressional district in the country. Over the past 12 years, grantees have leveraged more than $44 million in local funding to support their NEA Big Read programs. More than 4.9 million Americans have attended an NEA Big Read event, approximately 82,000 volunteers have participated at the local level, and over 39,000 community organizations have partnered to make NEA Big Read activities possible.

This year, Hopkinsville once again has a Big Read grant, focused on Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Written in 1938, the play is set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a community that, according to the script, has not produced anyone very “remarkable.”

Late this year and early next year, Paducah rolls out its Big Read grant with a community reading of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” This dystopian romp is about a society that bans books and employs a cadre of ardent “firemen” who burn any books they come across.

According to the NEA website, the titles in the Big Read library vary in genre, theme, settings and points of view, providing lots of material for community discussion and reflection. One NEA Big Read grantee says about the book her community chose, it “taught us how to talk to and trust one another so that we could ultimately approach issues that were difficult and immediate.”

Instead of banning books, reading them and discussing their pros and cons is a way to foster communication and critical thinking. Big Read grants are designed for just that purpose. Applications for the last round ended in June, but another window of opportunity will open in the spring of 2020.

For more information, visit www.arts.gov.

An overview of frequently banned books is available at ncac.org.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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