Although many high school English classes have reading lists that include books on the “banned books” list, many people might not be clear what exactly that entails.
In order to help raise awareness about the Banned Books List, the Vassar Main Library is participating in Banned Books Week, which is being held nationwide this coming week.
The Banned Books List is compiled and updated every year by the American Library Association. Started almost 30 years ago, the list features hundreds of the most challenged and controversial books in the nation. Because many books often have their challenges stricken down and completely new books are challenged, the ALA only puts up an official list of the books on which they received the most reports of challenges.
To help raise awareness for the books that have been banned and contested, the ALA began the Banned Books Week every September.
“Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular,” reads a statement on the ALA’s website.
The Vassar Library has participated in Banned Books Week in past years, but has limited its involvement to an informational display on the Week and some of the more popular banned books. This year, though, the library is trying to get the whole campus involved. There will still be a display similar to last year’s in the library, but there will also be dorm readings led by the House Teams and House Fellows of the houses that have volunteered to host.
Spread throughout the week so they won’t conflict with one another, the readings will take place in Jewett, Josselyn and Lathrop. Books on the banned list, specifically picked by the House Fellows, will be read.
“We’re trying to promote reading for the sake of reading, rather than just because it’s an assignment,” said Molly James ‘17, the Library Research Intern, who has been heavily involved in organizing the readings.
Those who would like to support Banned Books Week, but don’t have the time to sit through a reading, should find their favorite coffee mug and make their way over to Davison House. There, they can pose in banned books “mug shots”.
The increased involvement in Banned Books Week comes in the wake of two recent events. The first is the passing of Maya Angelou. Angelou has, for a very long time, been one of the most challenged and controversial of authors, yet her books remain widely known and acclaimed. In remembrance, Jewett’s dorm reading will be from Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”
The second event is an incident that occurred at the University of Charleston in South Carolina this past spring. Much like our own freshman class, Charleston asked their student body to read the book “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. Unfortunately, “Fun Home” had been banned from being read in schools of any kind, private or public, by the state. Once the state legislature found out that Charleston’s students had read the books, they pulled thousands of dollars of funding from the school.
According to Gretchen Lieb, one of Vassar’s own Research Librarians, incidents such as this one are far too common and, additionally, are outright cases of censorship.
“[Charleston] shows that even private colleges can be harassed over books,” said Lieb.
Often, Lieb continues, the book-bannings are as much about politics as they are about the actual content of the book. She used the example of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which was banned by the U.S. government because the book’s publisher was known to support anarchist groups. On House Fellow Matt Schultz’s recommendation, Josselyn House will be holding a reading of “Ulysses” during Banned Books Week.
Although the library could be sanctioned at any time, the College and the library don’t intend to change anything.
“The library is committed to having challenging books available,” said James.
Lieb agreed that making sure these books remain available is very important. She had her own experience with censorship as a child growing up in the Mormon church. The church ordered its members not to read the book “From Housewife To Heretic” by Sonia Johnson, which detailed Johnson’s departure from Mormonism. Being curious, Lieb read the book, which she says changed her life.
“It’s important to remember the power of ideas in books,” said Lieb. “I know how important books can be in people’s lives.”
She continued, echoing James’ sentiment: “We’re always trying to promote reading for the sake of reading and sharing ideas with the bigger community.”
The events during Banned Books Week are not all the library is hoping to do, Lieb reports. She hopes to promote and organize “reading salons” at various times around campus. The salons would be a quiet space, possibly in the library itself, where members of the Vassar community could come in, turn their phones and computers off, and just peacefully and quietly for awhile.
In the end, Lieb feels, it’s about getting books into peoples’ hands. “We librarians just want to promote reading,” she repeated with a grin.