Book banning

NEWSPAPER editorials, television programs, and public-service announcements are stressing the importance of being able to read in today's information-based world. The ability to read is essential for full involvement in society. Reading opens doors, providing countless benefits to readers, allowing them to participate in ``the good life'' to a more satisfying degree. Yet the ability to read is of limited value without free access to books.

The school board of Graves County, Ky., has decided to restrict access to one of the books in its high school language arts program. Without even reading the book, board members banned Nobel laureate William Faulkner's ``As I Lay Dying'' from the school curriculum.

Sadly, such an action is not very newsworthy anymore. The wire service story published in a Houston newspaper totaled barely five column inches. Book banning has become so commonplace that even bibliophiles are all but inured to it. That is even more frightening than the bans themselves, which are, after all, only about words -- the most fleeting and least permanent of human vanities.

During this past summer, a stage version of George Orwell's novel ``Animal Farm'' was banned from production at Baltimore's Theatre of Nations festival at the insistence of the Soviet Union. The play, that nation's representatives protested, offended their sensibilities.

Orwell wrote ``Animal Farm'' after fighting on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War, which began 50 years ago. With the trained journalist's keen eye for detail, Orwell observed the infighting, especially bitter between the Stalinist and Trotskyite Communists, among the various factions defending the Republican government.

Those bitter intramural struggles were as responsible for the fall of the republic as were General Francisco Franco's nationalist forces. As Orwell fully realized, the underlying cause was simply words. Various Republican factions just wouldn't believe in quite the same words or accept those who disagreed with their words.

Orwell knew, probably better than most, that people who disagree with and fear particular words must try to destroy them. Seemingly simple combinations of letters connote meaning, whence derive ideas. Ideas are dangerous to people who disagree with them. The ultimate target then is not books themselves or even words -- it is ideas.

That is why, in Orwell's other masterpiece, ``1984,'' the goal of Big Brother's regime is to destroy as many words as possible. Ban books, eliminate words, kill ideas, produce total and mindlessly unquestioning conformity and obedience. That is totalitarianism. That is Stalinism. That is what Orwell was describing.

What then is the difference between Soviet suppression of ideas and the Graves County school board decision to pull Faulkner from its high school classes? These two scenarios, both stimulated by offended sensibilities, appear more similar than not.

A high school student in Mayfield, Ky., however, can still go to the local public library or a bookstore to obtain a copy of ``As I Lay Dying.'' In contrast, Orwell is not in print in the Soviet Union. But how long will this obtain? Suppression of books, of words, of ideas, is insidious and incremental.

Commentators discussing illiteracy today speak of the dire social consequences posed by the perpetuation of a permanent underclass unable to read and thus function effectively.

But a far greater menace awaits the United States if book banners succeed in creating a permanent underclass of people who cannot think because they have never been exposed to differing ideas or forced critically to confront views opposing their own.

When the voices of all writers who evoke disagreement are stilled, as William Faulkner's was in Graves County, those who ban these words all but ensure the ultimate destruction of the society they seek to protect from the corruptive force of differing ideas.

Joe Patrick Bean is an assistant professor of history at Concordia Lutheran College in Austin, Texas.

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