“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
The quotation above comes from one of my favorite “banned” books – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Every year, during the last week in September, libraries and book-lovers across the country celebrate the ALA’s Banned Books Week – an event designed to call attention to the consistent problem of literary censorship. Launched in 1982 in response to an unusual uptick in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores, and libraries, Banned Books Week reminds all of us that there remain many who fear the power of the written word.
Because powerful it is. Recently, I finished Lily Zalon’s compilation of letters entitled, Dear Mr. Potter: Letters of Love, Loss, and Magic. This book, with one-hundred percent of the profits benefiting the Harry Potter Alliance’s project to further youth literacy, collects the stories of how J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has “impacted, inspired, and affected its fans.”
Now, I love the series. It has kept me up at all hours of the night, theorizing with my mom and listening to Mugglecast (our favorite Harry Potter podcast). It has provided instant connection with new friends, fodder for philosophical discussion, and a warm balm for my mental and physical wounds. But it didn’t prevent me from committing suicide; it didn’t help me through my last days on earth as I died of cancer; it wasn’t the only interest I could sustain as a young girl with an I.Q. of 50 resulting from a unique genetic disorder.
Some people – many people – think that Harry Potter is just a children’s series. And that’s fine. Because, and here comes the argument that got me in trouble in my classic books course, all books are equally valuable. ‘Wait, wait, wait . . .’ the confused professor stammered, ‘You mean?’
‘Yes, that Paris Hilton’s autobiography is equally as valuable as (whatever white, male-dominated crap you’re teaching us; no, I didn’t actually say this out loud) The Odyssey.’
And, round and round the argument went. And either because it was eight in the morning, or because I simply didn’t respect this particular professor enough to attempt to expand his outlook, I just steadfastly answered “Yes” to every “You mean?” and left it at that.
There are two types of readers. There are those who you meet at a party and, over pigs-in-a-blanket and sangria, catalogue the list of classics and best-sellers they have read. ‘Why, you haven’t read Lolita? I will now use my body language to demonstrate that I know I am better than you.’
The second type of reader is my fellow and the only true lover of language. This reader knows the ink-and-paper characters are as real as you or me and is not ashamed to loudly exclaim, “That whiny little pansy!” when speaking about Hamlet.
For these kinds of readers, books are the most powerful entity in the world. Their characters, themes, and speech inspire in the most profound of ways. And, yes, sometimes that can be frightening. More frightening, however, would be the loss of that inspiration.
One may say that the removal of a book here or there from the shelves of a local bookstore or library may not make a difference given the plethora of other tomes to choose from. I certainly have no love lost with A Clockwork Orange, a disgustingly violent book that is also a perennial favorite of the banned-books lists. But I know enough about the power and value of books to know that an individual or philosophical group’s personal preferences simply cannot dictate access.
So, this week, you don’t have to celebrate by reading To Kill a Mockingbird or And Tango Makes Three. Read anything you choose and fall in love – that is the right that Banned Books Week reminds us is precious and endangered.