Students, faculty celebrate relevance of banned literature


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Adam Niemi/Staff Photographer A student holds a page of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" before English faculty member Susan Griffith reads an excerpt of the story on Tuesday in the Baber Room at the Charles V. Park Library.

Books can be read for two ways: the plot itself, or the themes.

On Tuesday, about 75 students and faculty read some literature for a third reason — because they've been banned, censored and challenged.

Melissa Smith, professor of English Language and Literature, used a “Catcher In The Rye” quote about children reaching for a gold ring as a metaphor for the way books become banned.

“Sometimes readers will reach for something and fall, but we have to let them fall,” Smith said, referencing the book. “It isn’t our place to tell them they’re wrong. We can only stand back and watch.”

A read-out of banned books in the Charles V. Park Library Baber room celebrated the freedom to read and enjoy literature that has been challenged, censored and banned. The event is part of Banned Books Week at Central Michigan University this week.

“I think there’s no one reason books are banned,” said Elizabeth Richard, instructor in communication and dramatic arts.

Richard said she has recently often thought of Salman Rushdie, a best-selling author whose famous 1988 work, “The Satanic Verses,” gained notoriety as the work that endangered Rushdie’s life. Although the book was well received in the United Kingdom and was also a Booker Prize finalist in its publishing year, it created outrage in pockets of Muslim communities. This outrage led Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, to issue a fatwa, an Islamic decree that called for the death of Rushdie.

Richard said that was an example of the way censorship can not only prevent books from being widely distributed, but also place an author in a period of silence.

Reading banned books can also be viewed as a way to create dialogue about what literature is and what makes it relevant to society. Some literature, as unpopular as it may be, can still express relevant opinions that comment on the human condition and the way people live.

“And that’s something that I think we don’t talk about is how censorship silences some authors, too,” Richard said.

Aparna Zambare, assistant professor of libraries, read “Midnight’s Children” by Rushdie during the read-out.

Even today, challenged books can be hard-pressed to find its place on shelves. There are acts as recently as 2000, Richard said, Canadian Customs seized challenged literature and prevented some books from reaching their final destination.

Students also helped carry along the read-out. Susan Griffith, assistant professor of English language and literature, lined students who held black-and-white drawings of death and scary stories to help set the scene of Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”

Other students attended the event as either extra-credit or a class requirement. Lansing senior Emily Hundt, an elementary education language arts major, said her professor required her to attend.

“We are learning about banned books in the classroom and our teacher wanted us to come and see what she was talking about,” Hundt said. “Also, to understand why people try to ban them and that people can still read them and see that they’re still good books.”

Excerpts from a couple other classic books, including “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Frankenstein” were also read at the event, symbolizing the long-standing battle of overcoming the protective state that limits the distribution of literature. The event was a way to appreciate literary work despite its graphic, profane and vulgar expressions and value their relevance about social commentary and the human condition.

Richard said people should make their own choices about the literature they read, but should not be pressured by people to avoid a book because of content that other people question or challenge.

Censorship has also happened through logistics. Richard said a clear example was prevalent in the 1950s when the United States Postal Service held onto books that were challenged, banned and censored by the government and other entities. Sometimes, Richard said, the books were held by the USPS for months and in other cases the books never reached their destination.

“What was the standard by which they were making these decisions?” she said. “What authority did they have to control that?”

Richard said she has even noticed recently that books that have been challenged have gone missing at CMU. She said she noticed “Midnight’s Children” and “The Satanic Verses” has gone missing from the Charles V. Park Library numerous times.

Perhaps, if banned books could speak, it may quote from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” read by communication and dramatic arts faculty Jill Taft-Kaufman: ‘I survived, but it’s not a happy ending.’


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