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Leaning into discomfort: the value of reading banned books

Leaning into discomfort: the value of reading banned books

According to The Banned Books Week Coalition, Banned Books Week was first started in 1982 as an effort to celebrate the freedom to read and encourage engagement with the problems inherent in book censorship. This past week, the Department of English, in conjunction with the Honors College and the Albin O. Kuhn Library, sponsored two events to bring Banned Books Week to the UMBC campus.

“The Banned Books Week events at UMBC this year are aimed at stirring conversation about why books are banned, the different forms of censorship, and the overarching ramifications of contesting books,” says Christopher Varlack, a professor in the Department of English.

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, they hosted a Banned Books Trivia event and on Friday, Sept. 29, they hosted a pizza and panel discussion. At the panel, Varlack gave a short talk and facilitated a conversation among the students and faculty in attendance.  

The discussion centered around the possible arguments for and against book censorship as well as the cultural and historical implications of restricting information. The conversation was lively as participants stood and voiced their opinions and concerns. Varlack responded to each of the participants thoughtfully and at times asked them to respond to an opposing pro-censorship viewpoint.

The facilitators proposed that those in favor of book censorship often cite the need to shield children from complex and controversial issues.

Five out of the top ten banned books for 2016 were challenged for containing LGBTQ+ characters and discussing themes of gender and sexuality. However, participants made it clear that by attempting to remove this type of literature, these challenges contribute to the continued oppression of marginalized people. A consistent theme in the discussion was the need for representation of those identifying outside the hetero-normative binary.

Forty-two percent of those who challenge books are parents.

A pro-censorship argument would be that it is the responsibility of the parents to provide information as they see fit, and children should not be exposed to these issues in a school or public library. But as many noted, perhaps for a child or young adult, these characters might be the only source of information about gender and sexuality available to them if these discussions are not occurring in their home.

Varlack encouraged the idea that parents should actively engage with their children when reading by encouraging open discussion of ideas that might be confusing. This way children would be introduced to mature topics gradually that are presented at an appropriate developmental level.  

Forty-nine percent of challenges occur in a public library. When books are challenged, they are not automatically removed, but it does present a challenge against freedom of speech.

“Unfortunately, in the United States, there is a consistent effort to censor texts and silence speakers who present ideas and experiences that are seen as taboo,” says Varlack.

Another key topic brought up consistently in the discussion was the need to prevent the re-writing of history. Examples included textbooks which erroneously referred to slaves as indentured servants. Participants cautioned that changing the historical narrative prevents people from learning from the mistakes of the past and denies the real experiences of oppressed people.

Varlack said, “After all, societal change can only occur through conversation regarding complex and controversial issues, not through erasing them or pretending that those human issues simply do not exist.”