“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”
The famous line from Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is as relevant today as it was when Harper Lee’s novel was first published almost 60 years ago. Empathy and understanding were in short supply in the world inhabited by Finch and his 6-year-old daughter, Scout, and Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work gave readers a glimpse into lives they never would have experienced otherwise. Like the best of art, it made us question our assumptions about ourselves and those around us.
For many years, however, the book was off limits to many Americans, banned in schools and libraries across the country for its often rough language and frank descriptions of sex, rape and racial animus. It has never been a comfortable read, but neither has it been, as one critic in the Verona, N.Y., schools called it, “a filthy, trashy novel.”
Today, “Mockingbird” is welcomed as one of the most important works of American literature, and a play based on its pages that debuted last year is already the top-grossing American play in Broadway history.
We wonder if that would be so had legions of librarians not fought so hard over the years to keep the book on the shelves of school and public libraries. It’s not just “Mockingbird,” of course. Over the years dozens of titles have come under fire, from “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Color Purple” to “The Great Gatsby” and , yes, even the children’s series “Captain Underpants.”
From “The Bluest Eye” to “The Lord of the Flies,” they’re all worth defending during this, national Banned Book Week. The yearly event, organized by a coalition of publishers, librarians, authors and other groups, began in 1982, when the Supreme Court held that students’ First Amendment rights were violated when Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and eight other books were pulled from school libraries.
And while works like “To Kill a Mockingbird” have moved from challenged to revered, new targets have entered the list. The list of most challenged books of recent years includes “George,” a children’s novel by Alex Gino that includes a transgender character; “This Day in June,” a picture book by Gayle E. Pitman and Kristyna Litten that illustrates a Pride parade; and “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, a novel written as a reaction to a police shooting. This year’s list of most-challenged works had 11 titles instead of 10, according to the American Library Association, because “two titles were tied for the final position on the list, and both books were burned by a religious activist to protest a Pride event.”
You might ask why there’s such a commotion -- a book banned at the library can still be bought at a local bookstore or even through Amazon. But that’s missing the point. Libraries are the great equalizer. They don’t care about your social status or how much money you have. As long as you have a (free) library card, you have the same access to information as anyone else.
It is to the great credit of local librarians that controversial titles can be found on bookshelves across the North Shore and Merrimack Valley. Like newspapers, librarians have long been defenders of the First Amendment and the right to freedom of expression. Many have made it a point to highlight Banned Book Week. The Beverly Public Library has been sharing the most-challenged titles on its Facebook page all week, as has the Rockport Public Library. The Haverhill Public Library is encouraging patrons to share photos of banned books, and over in Saugus, the public library is hosting a session by the New England First Amendment Coalition titled “The First Amendment and a Free Press.”
Librarians, of course, know what Harper Lee knew: Books, both fiction and nonfiction, introduce us to lives and perspectives we might otherwise never encounter, however uncomfortable the experience may be. If you truly want to honor the First Amendment, don’t just buy a newspaper. Get a library card.