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In Defense of Full Bookshelves

"Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen." 

"That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also."

Heine's quote immortalized in a plaque in Berlin
The quote was written in Almansor, a Heinrich Heine play written in 1821, more than 100 years before the harrowing night of May 10, 1933, when a group of Nazis, SS and Hitler Youth gathered approximately 20,000 books and set them alight in front of Humbolt University’s old library. A play written more than 100 years before the Nazis began burning Jews, homosexuals, the handicapped, Gypsies and enemies of the state. The books burned that night included works by Heinrich Heine, a Jew who had fought censorship during his lifetime. A memorial in the square, created by Micha Ullman, shows empty white bookcases entombed by a glass plate.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Berlin and saw the memorial in person.

As a writer, lover of books, lover of knowledge and of the freedom to access ideas, this memorial hit me particularly hard. From the chilling quote to the despondent empty shelves (those shelves made my chest too heavy to breathe for a moment), I was reminded that to remove access to books through censorship creates one of the biggest dangers humans can know. A book burning is not the same as murder, but I have no question that the denial of theories of thought creates a race that is ripe for brainwashing and the decline of morals and humanity.

Interesting, that, since so many censors believe they are trying to promote morals by censoring certain books. Are modern books burners and censors the same as those Nazis? In fullness, perhaps not. I’m sure most censors truly love their children and feel they are doing the best for them. Unfortunately, their actions are less promoted by love than by fear. Fear of what? I’m not completely sure. Fear of new ideas? Fear of teachings that conflict with their own? When fear dictates our actions, we lose the ability to act rationally. When fear dictates our actions, we are susceptible to ideas that are delivered by personalities bigger than our own. This happened in Germany, this happens in the U.S.
Bebelplatz: The chill of empty bookshelves

Do parents have the right to censor their children’s reading material? I believe that yes, inasmuch as they can control their children, they do have that right. This doesn’t mean I agree with the action, but I am not your child’s parent. What parents absolutely do not have, however, is the right to control what other children read. And so I unanimously am opposed to any action that attempts to ban or censor material for schools, school districts, libraries, townships, etc.

Keep your ideologies off others.

What is censorship to you? Why do people do it? At what level is the suppression of ideas okay? Is censorship ever not harmful? Do you see parallels between Nazi book burning and today’s book burnings? I’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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  1. Censorship, to me, is the opposite of intellectual freedom. On a basic level it's stopping another individual from reading, writing, or sharing specific ideas which you believe might be harmful.

    I totally agree with what you said. I believe parents have the right to censor what their children are reading, but I think that should happen with an open dialogue where the parent discusses why they think their child might not be ready for certain materials. But to BAN a book for an entire community (whether that community be a school, public library, etc)? That's wrong. Because intellectual freedom means having a choice.

    Probably the only time I can see censorship as a good thing is if you're removing a book from a collection because it openly promotes hatred toward a specific group or individual. It's definitely a tricky line, especially because I know hate speech isn't against the law in the US in the same way it is in Canada because of first amendment rights.

    I'm really not sure what motivates people to try and censor other people's reading choices. Fear, I suppose. Yes, ideas are powerful... but why do people feel the need to push their agenda onto other people? It doesn't make much sense. Especially because just because you're reading about an idea doesn't mean you believe it or start living it. "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

  2. A lot of kids in primary school are reading the 'Underbelly' series (based on the true drug criminals of australia from the 30's, 60's, 70's etc) because they're not allowed to watch the tv series as it's too violent and has graphic sexual scenes. I was a bit surprised when I met some kids quoting this as their favourite books - but then figured it was good that they're reading above their own age level, they're passionate about it and books are the safest way for kids to explore sex and violence.
    My kids can read what they like, but I do advise them if I think something is beyond their comfort level and they always (so far) accept my advice as they trust my opinion. I won't be devastated if I catch them reading something I think is a bit much for them.
    PS My daughter LOVED Hunger Games when she was 9.

  3. My 10-year-old son recently took a lexile test that gave him an extremely high reading level and a list of recommended books for that level. The first one was Autobiography of Malcolm X (which I have read). Will I let him read it? Absolutely. This year? Nope.

    I suppose some people would think I'm censoring his list by crossing out some of the books, but reading at an 11th grade level does not make you 17 years old.

    What we'll do instead is go through websites and bookseller sights to find something we can both agree is interesting and fun to read. To me, that's part of my job. :)

  4. "Unfortunately, their actions are less promoted by love than by fear."

    This sentence for me sums up so much of today's parents' behaviour, well beyond the censoring of books. Parents seem *scared*. The strict ones are scared that their kids will slip out of their control, although that's what they *must* do eventually, and the lenient ones are afraid to "traumatize" their children by frustrating them in any way.

    Well, here's a newsflash: children are very resilient when it comes to most things. But their parents' fear? Nope. That's something they'll subconsciously suffer from all their life. Fear of any sort is a real poisoned gift...

    My parents have never censored my reading (they did a lot of other things, though, so I know what I'm talking about). I read many things in secrecy, anyway, and I'd really like to see a parent try and control *that*.

    I read a book with an explicit sex scene when I was about 14, and my mom read it afterwards and was horrified. LOL I wish I'd read so many more... Children are so uneducated about sex it puts them at risk when they grow up and get ready to start having it. (Or they get used to only hearing about sex as related to violence or perversion.)

    The funny thing, though, is that if you reason in terms of age-appropriate reading, then I'm sorry, but everything they make us read in high school is way too hard for (most) teenagers. I know that I've re-discovered so many books I was forced to read in high school once I was an adult, and went: "ooooh, so that's what it meant, what s/he must have felt like, etc." And I say that from the perspective of a bright, head-of-class student... I may have gotten A's, but I honestly didn't get these books.

  5. I just finished The Book Thief, so I have (Nazi) book burnings and the power of the printed word on the brain. While I find 21st century book banning problematic, I think it's in a different category than early 20th C racist book burnings, especially considering access. Granted, today's rural kids, inner-city kids, and poor kids have a tougher time getting their hands on banned books than their middle-class suburban counterparts, but it's not as bad as having all the copies rounded up and destroyed.

    On a related note, one thing I'm concerned about is information overload. If the words come in a raging flood, do they lose their individual power as we struggle simply to absorb it? Would Heine even have an audience if he were writing today? Would his works be "snappy" enough to stand out from the torrent? I wonder if we aren't inadvertently censoring ourselves of complex ideas by sating ourselves with an all-you-can-eat diet of words (and images and sounds) so that even the powerful, challenging fare we read (or don't read) eventually gets drowned with everything else.

    But that seems a little too cynical. I'm thinking now that some of it floats to the top and stays in our minds.

    And thanks for the German. I miss being over there.

  6. I believe in freedom of speech to the end of the earth. I studied journalism so we talked A LOT about freedom of speech. Even works that I hate & think are vile have a right to exist because that protects my words right to exist.

    Thus I am anti-censorship.

    I do however think there are times when parents can say "not yet" but I don't think there's ever a case to say "never"


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Item Reviewed: In Defense of Full Bookshelves Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook