Should Any Books Be Banned?

Books are much more than paper pages, bindings, covers. Books are not just words, illustrations,or graphs. For example, the Codex Sassoon is more than just an old, stained chumash. Your grandparent’s old prayer book, with family member yahrzeit dates penciled in on one of the inside covers, is more than just a dusty relic. We can list multiple reasons why some books are so precious to us, or to society as a whole as well as to particular families. There are so many books that we esteem greatly and pass down from generation to generation.

Many books are almost like people. They seem to have lives, and these can extend for generations. Books have personalities, reputations, and potential.

Yet there are also many books, marketed to children, teens and adults that inflame anger in people so much that they are the subject of bans. These books are all part of our society today.

Why are certain books treasured dearly while others spark waves of anger? Why do certain books inspire such strong emotions in many people? This is nothing new, but both types have been in the news lately, books revered and books reviled.

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One of the more fascinating items of the spring auction season in New York City was the Codex Sassoon, “the earliest, most complete Hebrew bible.” It was on display at Sotheby’s and I was one of the fortunate folks who got to see it up close (I signed up online for a free viewing session). It was a wonderful opportunity to see a historical religious artifact, and I was quietly moved by being in its presence. I enjoyed seeing people young and old, secular and religious, gazing at it and snapping photographs. Our enthusiasm was contagious.

This unique book was then sold for $38 million (!) and donated to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv. It won’t be hidden away in a private collection but will be on view for the general public.

Jews are often referred to as “the people of the Book” and on the whole, Jews do profess much regard for religious and historic books. Prayer books, texts such as the Humash, Talmud, Mishnah, and many others are revered. If a Jew drops a prayer book, it’s kissed out of respect when picked up. The Codex Sassoon is one of many books that we Jews esteem greatly.

It seems like quite a harsh contrast with how books are regarded in certain parts of the United States today. There are book bans taking place in states such as Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah and South Carolina, even in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In a few states, teachers are being ordered to remove books from their classroom shelves. Community public libraries are being impacted greatly. There are parents and politicians who grow shrill about how these books are inappropriate, will “indoctrinate” their children, expose them to unwanted points of view, and worse.

PEN America notes that “the majority of the books banned have to do with race, gender or sexual identity.” You might wonder why I would bunch together a rare book such as the Codex Sassoon along with affordable mass market books, but books of various types are often in the news. Even if they seem old-fashioned and noncontroversial in general, books have been central to society for ages and eons. Books certainly educate and inform; can they also mis-educate and mis-inform? Are they benign things or fiery catalysts of culture? They can be both, and it certainly depends upon who is speaking.

Books can be political hot potatoes due to their subject matter: topics such as race, economic ideas, theories of politics, works on gender, religious tracts, novels and poetry collections with curse words and sexual situations, historic “lenses” which are startling and discomforting; all these can spark conflicts. And that isn’t bad in and of itself. Debate, hopefully civil and informed, is a healthy product of an educated society. But should books be banned? Should they be…burned? Should they be turned into weapons?

Should books be restricted to readers based upon their age? Their level of religiosity? Can a book truly corrupt someone…or does it merely open their eyes to other ideas?

Personally, I find book bans scary and wrong, and I’m unhappy that they are being banished from shelves. But then again, I’m not happy about people promoting anti-semitic books such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or Mein Kampf, or violent books about making clandestine bombs. But do I want those books to be banished from the face of this earth? Do even these awful books and others like them, deserve to be “un-alived” in a fashion?

There is a place for the controversial books, the hateful books, the books that have been proven to be full of lies, the books that whitewash the awful parts of history. They can be read critically, shown to be the bad literature that they are, placed in their uncomfortable contexts.

And some books that are dear to a particular group can be hated by others. There are religious books in that category. Books that are of a pornographic nature… and how much “intimate details” makes a book verboten? What about books that were long considered “classics of literature” such as Huckleberry Finn, that are now viewed as disturbing because of certain words used? What is to be done?

I do know that I am angered to hear that a classic such as The Diary of Anne Frank has been banned in some places. The graphic novel version as well as the standard text version have been impacted. I am angered to learn that “Maus” by Art Spiegelman has been banned in some schools and libraries. There are many others as well.

Will Sydney Taylor’s beloved All of Kind Family book series be banned because someone takes umbrage with their depiction of Jewish life? Will people try to ban the Torah because it’s too violent? How about the Psalms? Eichah (Lamentations) and other books, full of horrifying images?

Book bans are chilling; what about book burning? Or authors being attacked physically for writing controversial books?

Books are more than words, thoughts, images. They can teach and comfort and illuminate; they can scare and disturb and much more. They represent ideas, and literacy. They have life.


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