Banned Books 1

 

Most people would say reading was good for you but does it matter which books we read? Can’t we just read what we want? To stop us feeling embarrassed reading a book for children, book publishers design a different cover. With ereaders nobody knows what we’re reading, and really nobody cares what forty-something man is reading but it’s different if you’re a child, a young person, or a prisoner.

In prison the authorities worry about young men reading true crime or overtly violent books. The ‘authorities’ can be prison governors, prison librarians, or even charities that work with prisoners and reading. Often there is distaste for what prisoners chose to read. At a recent conference I got into a battle defending prisoners who chose to read Martina Cole (by far the most popular author in UK prisons). “If we’re going to get them to read, let them read the good stuff,” I was told. In this post religious age we still have a belief that some books can transfer a portion of their essence to the reader. This doesn’t give space for the complex ways in which we link and interlink with narratives, for the way stories stay with us, haunt us, trouble us, and challenge our thinking, or disappear with little or no trace of their passing. It views people as passive vessels to be filled with good or bad substances taken from books, films, games etc.

 

Banned Books Week celebrates books that meet with disapproval or censure in countries across the world. Inspired by this, I offered to run some workshops on free speech at my local secondary school. We would look at books that had been banned throughout the world and see where the limits of free speech appeared to be.

Banned Books 2

The school was very keen (the workshops were free). I was invited to rushed meetings with black coffee and frayed staff who told me, after two meetings, that although they knew I was keen to work with younger students (year 9), they would only be able to offer the sixth form.

 

I was surprised as I had pointed out at the meetings that the contentious age for what we read slips away after your GCSE. It is quite easy to police books offered to teenagers in school – contentious books don’t get bought. Libraries and schools can ignore what teenagers actually read, and continue to give them lists of dull recommended reading – not all school librarians, but many are restricted by the fear of giving offence.

 

A decade ago I was working on a public library project with groups of Looked After Children. I would go to a Home and chat about books and reading. At first I was directed to the one boy who was taking GCSEs, and whom they thought would benefit most from my visits. I insisted on talking to all, generally six to eight, young people in the house. It was fun to take books I thought would interest them, or that they had requested, then read bits, or just chat with coffee and biscuits. It was also a way of getting staff to talk about their reading too. One boy in particular would always swoop on the box and search for Buffy graphic novels, particularly ones with the character Angel in. I was told that this boy, “Sam” was basically a good kid who was in danger of being led astray by some of the wilder kids in the house. I was in and out of that house every few weeks for months, getting to know them and the staff, and in all that time Sam never showed any interest in any books but the Angel series. I like vampire books and brought in lots that I thought were good. Proper books that had won awards, not spinoffs from a TV show. Sam ignored them. All that summer the Buffy and Angel graphic novels were the only books he took from me. Fortunately the other young people were keen to try all kinds of books, whatever I put some effort into promoting. It didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes I would arrive and the police would be there, or they would be looking for one of the young people. Other times they would just disappear to the beach but in the main it worked and we found a way of working books and reading into their lives.

 

Sam would occasionally follow me out into the street where he would watch me kick my aging Yamaha into spluttering life. One time it wasn’t having it and as I tinkered with the bike I asked Sam why he was so keen on Angel and none of the other vampire books I’d brought – I meant, of course, why didn’t he read better books.

 

Sam thought for a while and then explained to me that Angel, being a vampire with a soul,” is a little bit good, a little bit bad. Sometimes he does bad things.”

It didn’t take a genius to know why these books instead of the ones with more clean cut heroes appealed to this boy but it’s stayed with me as an example of why it’s always the reader, not the book. You can’t predict what meanings the reader will take from particular books. So, hands off.

 

‘Read as much as you can and find out who’s using you.’ – John Lydon