In his novel "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury describes a society in which books are outlawed. "Firemen" destroy them - hence the title, the temperature at which paper burns.
We may be a long way from such a society, but the American Library Association (ALA) and several groups of booksellers, publishers, and authors are spending this week highlighting the importance of being able to choose one's reading.
From Sept. 23 to Sept. 30, they are sponsoring the 19th Banned Books Week. "The American public has to be aware that their First Amendment rights are fragile," says Judith Krug, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Each year, the ALA publishes a list of books that have been challenged in schools and libraries around the United States. For every challenge they record, they estimate five go unnoted. Between 1990 and 1999, a total of 5,718 challenges were identified by the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Topping the list is Alvin Schwartz's "Scary Stories" series. Other frequently challenged books include "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain and "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger.
Ms. Krug says only a small fraction of these books are actually banned. Once community members know a book has been challenged, they often rally to keep it. "There might be very few who want to read [the books]," Krug says. "It's the idea of taking the choice away from the individual - eliminating his or her ability to decide what they want to read."
"Sexually explicit content" is the most commonly cited reason for a book challenge, according to the ALA. It is followed by "offensive language," "unsuited to age group," and "occult theme." Krug acknowledges parents may have good reasons for keeping certain books from their children, but recommends they take a more-active role in book selection rather than seeking to ban a book for everybody.
Often, challengers haven't even read the book in question. Krug's two favorite examples are "Making it with Mademoiselle" - a book of patterns from Mademoiselle magazine - and "The Belly Button Defense," banned before parents realized it simply contained basketball strategy.
This week's theme is "fish in a river of knowledge" - that's what we are when we go to libraries, Krug says. "You have everything in front of you - and you choose what you want."
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