September 25, 2018

Be a Subversive, Read a Banned Book

By Robert Musser, Ph.D.

Banned Book Week PosterFeeling a little subversive?  Me too.  We’re in luck.  This week (September 23-29) is Banned Books Week.  Sponsored by the American Library Association and other organizations, “. . . Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship.”[1]  At UAMS we may forget that challenges to learning and restrictions on reading significantly limit education and negatively impact optimal quality of life.  Banned Books Week reminds us that a healthy life is an informed, broad-minded life.

Book banning has existed for centuries.  In addition, access to certain books has been restricted from certain age groups or restricted to privileged or initiated groups.  Thoughts and words are dangerous!  Who knows what revolutionary movements might be spawned?  In the United States between the years 2000 and 2009 the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association received over 5,000 reports of either challenges to remove and restrict books or instances of books being banned.  Complaints were most often about sexual content, either that it was explicit or that the nature of the sexual behavior was contrary to the complainant’s standards (HGBTQ issues, violence, behavior by minors, for instance).  Other common complaints were about language or violence or about the book being unsuitable for a particular age group.

You are not surprised that around 2/3 of the complaints were in reference to school libraries and classrooms.  Only around 150 of the complaints were associated with higher education.  Slightly over half of the complainants were parents.  If you would like to know specific books check out the American Library Association’s web pages.  You’ll find books you expected and some surprises (maybe like me, you develop a reading list).

Generally I am completely opposed to censorship of information by any group.  Be they political, religious, or public-minded, such groups always support their own interests and biases.  It is certainly appropriate for parents to guide carefully their children, but to limit choices for others poses a problem.  In the medicine we are taught often and early the importance of informed consent, and informed consent requires access to full information.

Picture of a man reading a bookI was interested to find that books related to medical issues have been challenged, removed from publication, and even banned.  In 1822 the British government banned The Natural History of Man by Sir William Lawrence because the author claimed that religion and metaphysics have no place in medical research.  Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is one of those pesky books which have been challenged, restricted, and banned periodically since its publication.  An anatomy textbook from the 1970s was removed from publication both because of its text and the objectionable way in which women were portrayed in pictures.  Several books by William Reich were destroyed by the U.S. government after the influential psychiatrist was convicted of medical quackery and served time in prison where he died.  In 1997 The publisher of the Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy by Eduard Pernkopf stopped further publication after Pernkopf’s ties to Nazi Germany came to light. Look also into the story of Henrietta Lacks.  You might be interested to know that our library has some of these volumes in its collection.[2]

Read on!  In honor of this week start reading a banned book.  It will do you good.  If you are interested, drop by during the week.  I have displayed materials related to the topic, and I’ve brought some of the banned titles we have in our own family library.

[1] http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks.  The American Library Association has a number of webpages devoted to this topic and I relied on them for much of the general information in this blog.
[2] https://becker.wustl.edu/news/banned-medical-books/. https://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/rwj/banned-medical-books. Thanks also to the Department of Medical Humanities here at UAMS for their help in pointing to resources for this blog.  Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Johns Hopkins also has a brief statement about Ms. Lacks and a short video about her legacy, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/index.html.