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Banned Books Week – Sept 25-Oct 2, 2010

It’s the last week of September. The blush is on the apple tree. Gold and burgundy zinnias announce the change of season. And perennial displays of banned and challenged books bedeck library shelves and bookstore windows across the country.

Banned Books in America

Banned Books Week 2010

Sponsored by the American Library Association, along with writers and book sellers, Banned Books Week is a celebration of the right to read. According to the ALA, 460 book challenges were reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom from communities across the United States in 2009. Banned Books Week 2010 is September 25 through October 2. You can find more information at the Banned Books website: www.bannedbooksweek.org

Here, four Southern Oregon writers reflect on the psychology of censorship, and on reading and writing in a complex literary culture.

Banned in Boston!

“I remember that when I was a teenager I loved to buy books that said, ‘Banned in Boston’ on the cover.”

History writer Lionel Yost recalls finding an inexpensive copy of “Ulysses” by James Joyce, which he heard was banned in the UK. “I still have the copy, and still haven’t read it,” he remarked with a chuckle.

Any discussion of book banning is bound to prompt speculation about the power of reverse psychology, how titles appear more appealing simply because they’re controversial.

Jayel Gibson is the author of the award winning “Ancient Mirrors” fantasy series. She believes reading is one of the best tools for independent learning, whether the source is fact, fiction or opinion.

“Censorship limits knowledge,” observed Gibson. “I believe in the right to read in the pursuit of knowledge and for the sheer joy of entertainment.”

Long before she penned her first novel, Vivian Connolly remembers selecting Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” for a junior high book report project. She applied herself to the difficult text in part because her teacher attempted to steer her away from the book. Now Connolly suspects it was the adult romantic relationships in the book which her teacher found questionable.

“For me that book demanded a level of attention, because it was more difficult; it improved my skills. And I got a picture of Spanish Colonialism in South America,” said Connolly.

Connolly says the Civil Rights Movement drew her attention to censorship in this country, when the challenged content was often political in nature. These days, she notes sexuality is the topic frequently raised amongst library and school board members. Regardless of a book’s genre or subject, Connolly says the dialogue mediated by those library and school boards is important to our social structure.

“It’s one mechanism to get people to talk to each other about things they disagree about,” Connolly observed. “These are people who might never talk to each other, otherwise.”

That kind of public debate is exactly the measure poet and history writer Shirley Nelson says books and authors deserve. Nelson is a regular contributor to the Jefferson Public Radio series “As It Was.” Her latest publication is “Images of America: Port Orford and North Curry County.” A former public school teacher, Nelson says she doesn’t think people should be told what not to read.

“I just don’t feel that we should censor or ban books,” said Nelson, adding, “Books should sell or not sell, or be circulated, based on their merit and what people really think of them.”

Reading and Writing With Purpose

The process of producing authentic works which then reach the public can be daunting. Connolly says librarians are not the only gatekeepers, since agents, editors, publishers and booksellers all play a role in deciding what literature gets published and distributed.

“Scandal has always sold books too, but it depends on the publisher. It’s become a numbers game,” Connolly says of the publishing industry. Connolly used her professional experiences in acting and psychiatric nursing to flesh out the characters in what she now refers to as commodity novels. She is still disappointed with many of the “bodice ripper” covers, which depict amorous scenes more graphic than the printed contents.

“I tried to make my characters real,” Connolly said, then continued with a shrug, “Of course, then my editor called and said, ‘We need two more pages of sex in this,’ and I said, ‘Call me back in a hour or so.'”

What Gibson finds disturbing is unpublicized censorship “swirling around both genre works and nonfiction.” She cites “Boy Toy” by Barry Lyga as an example. The conclusion to Jack Martin’s 2008 review in the “New York Times Book Review” describes the novel as “an unsettling read, but that’s exactly what it ought to be.”

Gibson says Lyga anticipated his story would provoke a strong public reaction. The novel tells the story of a young man struggling with the psychological aftermath of abuse. “Instead, over several months the author learned that self-censoring libraries, schools and bookstores simply didn’t buy or recommend it in order to avoid possible controversy.”

To contend with the numbers game, when publishers and even librarians may try to second guess their patrons, writers have to hone their own sense of purpose.

Writing the biography “She’s Tricky Like Coyote: Annie Miner Peterson, An Oregon Coast Indian Woman,” Youst says he wrote for an audience of one–himself. He focused on writing a clear narrative that explored a story he wanted to research. In the process, Youst connected with readers interested in local and Native American history.

Though he knew some readers might be offended by Peterson’s forthright communication style, Youst included unedited excerpts of her traditional narrative recitations. “They’re so funny and so good, I couldn’t leave them out,” he explained.

When she sits down to write, Gibson keeps a list of reminders handy. She says the list highlights her responsibilities as a writer: First is accuracy, factual truth in nonfiction; second, intellectual honesty; third, consideration for the ripple effect her work may have on others.

“It’s a short list,” said Gibson, “but it keeps me honest.”

Geneva Miller is a freelance writer. She lives on the southern Oregon coast.

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