Last week librarians, educators, publishers, booksellers, and bookworms alike joined together to celebrate Banned Books Week. The celebration took on many forms: Twitter parties, YouTube read-out-louds, Google hangouts and more. The most important way to commemorate the seven-day event happens to be the simplest: read a banned book.
As someone who works in publishing, I always look forward to Banned Books Week—maybe because the best books tend to be the most frequently banned. Yet indulging myself in The Catcher in the Rye for the fourth or fifth time seems hardly commendable. I understand, of course, that it’s important to promote these titles for younger generations and doing so really does make a difference, as we saw in North Carolina when the Randolph County school board overturned the ban on Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.
But as an adult with a computer and a bank account, not only have I read The Invisible Man but if I felt so inclined I could literally download it right here at my desk and start reading now. The same goes for Captain Underpants; it’s not exactly a revelatory activity.
After all, digital media has thrown censorship for a loop. On the one hand, the internet makes it easier for us to circumvent traditional barriers—if a two-year old can purchase a car on Ebay, then they probably can buy Lady Chatterly’s Lover online too. And it is not all that often you hear about religious leaders burning Kindles at the stake. On the other hand, the ways in which we encounter digital media are shifting, allowing new, more subtle forms of censorship. Rather than individuals or institutions serving as gatekeepers of information, algorithms filter content to fit our personal interests. These filters help sift the otherwise overwhelming universe of content and information by catering to our own interests, feeding us information likely to reflect our own world views. These filters work through our newsfeeds, our Google searches—the suggested reading we encounter regularly. Eli Pariser calls this phenomena the “filter bubble”—a term he uses to describe “your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.”
Banned Books Week is intended to celebrate the freedom of speech and our right to pursue ideas that are different than our own–even if they are unorthodox or unpopular. It’s an opportunity to read outside the comfort zone, to encounter new or different ideas which in turn will define own our opinions, to enable us to think critically about the world around us.
So as tempting as it is for me to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved just because it appeared on 2012′s list of most frequently banned books, basking in the rich language is not exactly in the spirit of the week. I need to read something I have avoided, something I have cast as outside my own interests/views or dismissed on account of the author—even if I don’t enjoy it.