Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Power of the Written Word: Why Books Matter

By Carlos M. Camacho
Books, and by extension, the library, have always been a place of refuge for me. I remember growing up and watching Reading Rainbow. I remember my favorite day was when I could go to the library. My neighborhood branch was right next door to my school; the Kensington Branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library was always a part of my life growing up. I was friends with the staff and I was on the Battle of the Books team 2 years in a row. I was safe in a library, surrounded by voices from the most ancient times to those hot off the press. Not everyone is a fan of the library like me. I can’t help but be a fan of an institution that as a supplement to my education helped me to learn so much. I did not grow up in the 60s bu through books I discovered the words "I have a dream;" I discovered the history behind "by any means necessary" and "ain't I a woman." I also know "and on the seventh day God rested," "the boy who lived" and "workers of the world unite." While not perfect, the United States guarantees the right to free speech and this should be equally applied to books although that does not stop people from attempting to ban to succeeding in banning books
The written word is more than information; it is dangerous. Think of the documents that founded the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These are powerful words on a page. The Bible, Quran, Torah and other religious texts have gathered millions of followers around the world and have been cited as calls for peace, think Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and to oppress, think the Religious Right. The written word is powerful. It is because of this that some would ban books.
The myths and stories of humanity were told and retold until they began to be written down as written language developed. When one needed a copy one had to rewrite it by hand. With the printing press, it became easier to reproduce works and with greater speed. Today we have books as well as e-books, blogs, screenplays, plays and more being written, and copying and sharing is so simple when saved digitally. By copying and pasting a string of letters, the URL, this post can be posted anywhere for anyone with internet access to read. The power to spread the word and in particular the written word has increased. The internet provides unprecedented access to ideas, thoughts, communities and words before unexplored or talked about en masse.

The above video is the Reading Rainbow intro and the line that rang true for me growing up and even more so today is "take a look, it's in a book." I was born in 1989 so growing up, technology was progressing rapidly. I learned to use a card catalog before it was digital and available solely online; I used dial-up before broadband, I read books to learn about the world, from encyclopedias to magazines to books. I read these before there were Kindles and WiFi. I actually used a typewriter growing up. We experienced huge technological changes and we also experienced ideological shifts. One thing that remained the same was the drive by some to stop books from exercising their power.
Courtesy of the OSU Archives

What do:  And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell; The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; The Color Purple, by Alice Walker; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou; The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison; The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky; The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger; Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey; It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families, by Robie H. Harris; Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, by Michael A. Bellesiles; King & King, by Linda deHaan; Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck and Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling have in common? They were some of the most challenged books from 2004-2007. What is a challenge? According to the American Libraries Association:
A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.
Further a challenge is different from a ban. A ban removes the material entirely, while a challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict access to a material or remove it from a curriculum or library.  I have read some of these books and I love them. Maya Angelou is a literary great and Harry Potter, from the book to the films and beyond, has had such a profound influence on the world. It is hard to understand an attempt to ban these books, or any book for that matter. Or is it? 
Books are filled with ideas. Growing up I found myself unsatisfied with my family's religion and so I explored other religions from Wicca and Buddhism to Santeria and more. I didn't personally know any believers so I went to books. Books opened my religious thinking. As a scholar I have read, and will continue to read books that expand my thinking. This semester alone I have read Mead, Parsons, Foucault and more. I am not in agreement with all of their perspectives but I read them to learn more and to challenge my perspective. If you don't want someone to think, explore, challenge or be challenged, and if you want them to remain a passive participant, then you want them to read only approved texts and nothing more. 
Even with challenges and bans sharing information, ideas, and more has become so much easier. In the past as technology was developing, people of color were facing a digital divide that separated them from whites in terms of technology but these numbers are changing. According to a 2011 report from the Pew Internet Research Center racial minorities, in particular Blacks and Latinos are seeing a new digital divide where they are dominating mobile internet use, e-mail and social media (and where we outnumber whites on Twitter as of 2010), but are still behind in terms of home use of internet.
“Yet mobile Internet access may not be the great equalizer. Aaron Smith, a Pew senior research specialist, says there are obvious limitations on what you can do on a mobile device — updating a resume being the classic example.

"Research has shown that people with an actual connection at home, the ability to go online on a computer at home, are more engaged in a lot of different things than people who rely on access from work, a friend's house, or a phone," Smith says.”
Not everyone has access immediate access to the internet or certain materials, or is encouraged to utilize them. This digital divide is changing with Blacks, for example, increasing in terms of laptop ownership from 34% to 51% in the course of one year (2009-10). While seemingly insignificant, it is a step towards equality in multiple areas. This is relevant because the internet has the capability to be a great equalizer in terms of access to information. While books are being challenged or banned we can turn to the internet and find (sometimes free) e-books, translations, news from around the world and more. If people of color are not using the internet at the same rate, they are being further disadvantaged. The internet provides a savvy user with access to the world. This blog for example follows stories about warlords and slactivism, racism in the US, sexism in the US, education, Syria, Panama and a lot more with more to come. Independent and mainstream news organizations have websites, Facebook accounts, Twitter handles and Google+ accounts. A click of a button makes information available and with that a variety of images, videos, and other visual texts with many perspectives. My information tends to come from Twitter and the friends and colleagues I follow there. Twitter leads me to blogs, current events and other information, which is great, but let’s not forget the power that books, and the stories we tell, hold.
A good biography is an adventure. Children’s books set imaginations ablaze. Fantasy and sci-fi stories let us imagine a past, present and future brighter or darker than ours. Fiction overall shows us the everyday life of people like and unlike us. How-to books help us to become do-it-yourselfers. Non-fiction shares real life issues, discusses historical events, and shares some aspect of real life. Because books open doors, encourage creative thinking and more, they are an easy target for those who wish to control what influences are affecting people’s lives and banning books is one of the easiest ways to do just that.

Schools and libraries are often the sights of these challenges and bans. Parents want to protect their children, which is difficult to argue with. The problem is that when parents work for bans to be in place, they reduce our opportunities for growth. That is one less book, one less adventure, set of ideas, one less chance to be more open minded that all children in a school or geographic area get to experience. Books can give people new ideas, new ways to deal with experiences and a creativity and critical thinking that we so desperately need in the world.

So, what happens when we do ban Tango’s story, the story of a baby penguin raised by two male penguins (one of the challenged books discussed above)? What happens when Heather doesn’t matter (Heather Has Two Mommies was challenged)? When Maya Angelou is ignored? When sex is absent? We have a perpetuation of an educational system that privileges certain ideas, thoughts, feelings, experiences and lives. This is what is hugely problematic. It is more than challenges and bans. It is the institutionalization of this thinking. That if we do not like something, if it challenges our thinking, if we do not like the portrayal of a group, or an idea we can ban it, ignore it, make it disappear and further privilege the lives and experiences of a majority to the point of ignoring minorities. It is not just about gay stories and images, nor about Black/Latino/Asian/multiracial stories and images. It’s about further marginalizing an already marginalized people, without critical information from our youth and limiting our ability to think and act as independent, critical people.

Cross-posted from the Rogue Scholars Society

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