Could the simple act of reading a book about sorcery or the occult transform a reader into a witch, or another reader into a homosexual, if one of the characters happens to be a gay man? Sound absurd? Perhaps, but for hundreds of years, books have sparked in people roiling emotions and intense reactions. We don’t want our kids to read this smut! Keep these sorts of books out of our town libraries! On the threshold of September’s Banned Books Week, Missoula hosts the second annual Montana Festival of the Book Sept. 6-8, an event organized not only to celebrate the written word, but also to embrace the First Amendment and the freedom to know, to learn, to speak, and to teach. Like most places, Montana has had its share of incidents related to censorship, book banning, and First Amendment challenges. This past year, the breathlessly popular Harry Potter books, written by English author J.K. Rowling, were at the top of the controversy heap, causing seemingly endless arguments and discussions in schools and libraries.
“The great fear seems to be that these books are the work of the devil, that they will inspire kids to meddle with witchcraft or sorcery,” says Jim Heckel, director of the Great Falls Public Library and co-chair of the Mountain Plains Library Association. “Oftentimes, it’s the books that threaten people’s religious beliefs that are the ones that sound the alarm more than those that include sex scenes or violent language.”
A longtime member of the Montana Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and a panelist at this year’s Festival of the Book, Heckel says, “People can be very touchy about outside influences. Certain books or ideas can represent a loss of control, for themselves and their children. And they want that control back.”
This year at Great Falls High School, a mother complained that her child was able to check out a Ken Follett book, which she thought included inappropriate and sexually explicit language. Though the book was not part of the curriculum, her challenge was reviewed through committee. The school board voted to retain the book, but stipulated that parents may exercise some control over what their children can and cannot borrow from the library. A similar complaint was lodged in the Bozeman school district against Fool’s Crow by Montana author James Welch. The outcome was the same.
“The freedom to know and to learn are what libraries are all about,” says Bette Ammon, director of the Missoula Public Library. “People are deluding themselves if they think that by taking certain books away that the underlying issues will vanish, too. The fact is that the opposite often happens. Instead of minimizing the effect of a book, censorship magnifies it.”
Does taking Twain’s Huckleberry Finn off the shelf erase the fact that the word “nigger” was used in the past to describe an African-American? Does removing Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee eradicate the history of the white man’s oppression of this people? “It is our job as librarians, and human beings, to be sensitive,” says Ammon. “But you can’t erase history by removing books from the shelves of schools and libraries. More importantly, knowing what happened in the past helps us to make better, more informed choices in the present. People need to learn so that they can have an informed opinion.”
Barbara Theroux, owner of Missoula’s Fact or Fiction, says she never knew how much the First Amendment meant until, as a bookseller, she had to defend her right to have certain books and authors on the shelves.
“It’s not that you necessarily condone every issue you are defending, but where does one draw the line?” she asks. “If we passed a law banning Sendak’s picture book In the Night Kitchen because the little boy has on no pajamas or Little Red Riding Hood because she has a bottle of wine in her picnic basket, surely we would have to ban the Bible. It would never stop.”
Both Heckel and Ammon say that Montana, especially in the urban centers, tends to be liberal and open-minded on First Amendment issues, though they admit it’s best to keep on top of what books, authors, or literary trends are coming their way. Heckel, who speaks regularly at reading conferences and library groups on intellectual freedom issues, says that the more libraries, schools boards and communities know, the better. “It all comes down to listening,” he says. “If a parent is upset about a book his child has read, I just try to listen. Sometimes all people want is to be heard. I tell them that it is entirely appropriate for them, as parents, to want to keep certain books or ideas from their children, but it is also our responsibility as librarians to have a wide range of writers and viewpoints on our shelves. I invite them to visit the library with their child. I mean, if we are a democratic society and forbid certain things, then is that truly a democracy?”
This year for the first time, the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union will participate in the Festival of the Book by hosting a booth.
“We think the festival is a major event in Montana, a great way to celebrate free speech and intellectual freedom,” says Montana ACLU Executive Director Scott Crichton. “The humanities do great work. A lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to learn why the arts and humanities are good for their well-being, as an individual, a member of a community, and as part of a culture as a whole. This event is a rich opportunity to meet people, build bridges, and learn about the literature and social issues of the area.”
The 2001 Montana Festival of the Book will feature more than 100 writers and panelists in a variety of readings, discussions, exhibits, receptions, demonstrations, signings, and more. For more information, call 243-6022 or go to www.bookfest-mt.org.