In her memoir “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” Professor Azar Nafisi described clandestine sessions she held in her apartment with young women to openly discuss and debate the merits of works the Islamic Republic’s morality squad repressed. Nafisi had been raised during the reign of the ousted Shah who, despite his autocratic rule, allowed the liberal air of the West to permeate Iranian society. After earning her degrees at American universities, she returned to Iran after the 1979 Revolution and faced immediate scrutiny. Despite enormous pressure exerted on her to wear the traditional garb proscribed by the autocratic male rulers and to cease teaching Western literature, Nafisi refused to buckle. Her novel is a paean to true courage.
It is telling to note how some American morality squads in the guise ofcertain school boards, whose main purpose ought to be focused on creating and enhancing an educational structure that maximizes the full learning capacity of every student,hide behind the shibboleth that they are not banning books, but instead “removing them from approved reading lists.” Their explanation is a cowardly euphemism, a distinction without a difference. It simply changes a term or phrase to make the act sound acceptable, even benign, but without lessening its intention. Like saying “frigging” in lieu of hurling the f-bomb. Both mean copulating, but frigging has a venial-sin tone much like saying “gosh dang it” in lieu of you know what. Regardless, whether a book is banned or removed from the approved list, it has the same effect—CENSORSHIP.
Censorship knows no limits to where it is practiced. From Iran to American schools and school districts, the morality police and cultural warriors are unceasingly on the prow, forbidding the teaching of classic works from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to more current works that explore topics that shock uptight, pearl-clutching moralists and put them in a dither.
A teacher friend told me she sees dropping books from approved reading lists as nefarious as banning books because the powers-that-be are not only discouraging students from reading those books, but they are also discouraging teachers from teaching or recommending those novels.She notes too that saying books are dropped from approved reading list is less inflammatory than saying certain books are being banned. In so doing, she says, “they and their egregious actreceive less parent awareness of what has been done.”
The harm goes deeper, though, for it has, like so much else done ostensibly for the public good, disturbing and unconscionable unintended consequences. My teacher friend said she is finding that novel reading is becoming absent from the English classes. She fretted about how her own children used to “gobble up” novels in elementary school but barely read one in its entirety in middle and high school.
“I cringe,” she said, “when I think that my students will read less than eight novels by the time they graduate from high school. And I think I’m fairly generous with that number—and this is in honors-level classes.”
Banning classic works is more sinister than pearl-clutching moralism. It lessens, even demeans, the importance of not only reading but also of opening the mind. It is about keeping people ignorant, stupid, and easily duped. It is, as Alan Bloom wrote in his 1987 The Closing of the American Mind, the closing of the American mind.
To counter censorship crusaders, the American Library Association celebrates Banned Book Week typically during the last week of September. Its purpose is to celebrate the freedom to read, especially works some or even many consider unorthodox or unpopular.
Autocratic rulers and leaders, whether religious or political or whether in Iran or in America, are dependent upon mass ignorance to prop themselves up. And if one does not see something heinous in that, it suggests they are clueless about what ultimate heinousness is. It’s the closing of the mind, which is like killing a mockingbird. A mortal sin.
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.