Magic. Violence. Sex. Profanity. A book with those subjects is likely to have riled a few feathers at PTA meetings and community libraries across Canada in recent history. Last week, bookstores, publishers, and libraries across the country celebrated Freedom to Read Week, an annual event honouring our intellectual freedom. </p>
At the University of Waterloo, the librarian employment handbook states that the commitment to intellectual freedom, among other things, is an essential aspect of the role, and gives them the right to advocate for access to information. University librarian Mark Haslett said it’s a responsibility they don’t take lightly.
“It’s something that, as a profession, we are very strongly in support of,” Haslett said. In his 12 years in the position, Haslett said he’s yet to have any materials on library shelves challenged.
In Canada, notable challenges to books have taken place in individual communities, rather than nation wide. From Harry Potter to The Handmaid’s Tale, many now-beloved books have faced their fair share of criticism for being on class reading lists and on the shelves of local libraries.
“Of course, we know from a literary perspective, all the good books are banned books,” said Andrew Deman, a lecturer in the UW English department. He said one of the ways we value a text is by its capacity to alter society and expand discourse and conversations; books that attempt to do so, like George Orwell’s 1984, usually find themselves on a banned list for doing so.
According to Deman, books that push the envelope expand our consciousness and draw attention to issues not being addressed in a public forum. Books themselves start conversations and so does the act of challenging a book.
Many who publicly challenge popular books are doing so to give their own cause a spotlight, said Deman.
“A lot of people want soapboxes and if something is really popular, the easiest way to draw attention to your cause is to say that it is evil and should be banned.”
This is where books like Harry Potter come in. The series is a cultural phenomenon and groups who spoke out against it for its themes of witchcraft and wizardry garnered significant media attention.
Many books that have been challenged in the past are now found on required reading lists for high school students, like Catcher in the Rye and many of Shakespeare’s works. At the university level, Deman believes exercising the freedom to read controversial material is essential.
“I think in general it’s important to call attention to banned books because we’re a university,” said Deman. He cites the principle of academic freedom as a professor’s “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it comes to controversial material. “You can teach anything at all, no matter how offensive, and the faculty association will fight for the right to do so.”
Many instances of challenging books come as a result of cultural evolution. Books that were written nearly a century ago include language and references no longer politically correct; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, includes racial slurs.
A text that does not fit current standards of political correctness should not be discounted. It’s all about creating a contextual reader; books do not stand on their own, said Deman.
“We try to supply the context: we tell the students where its coming from, get input on how controversial books speak to contemporary society and why these books have value to their lives even if they are saying things completely antithetical to what students believe,” he said “What we need is readers who are capable of understanding context and they can read something like Huckleberry Finn and not be offended by it.”
Books being challenged is an indicator of the dangers of readers being contextually unaware. Readers need to be fostered to understand that books are not “the word of God” but rather the words of a particular writer in a particular context, said Deman.
The irony of many books that are challenged is that the controversy often results in its increased popularity.
“Banning books does not work, in fact it has almost the total opposite effect,” Deman said.