When students at Arizona State University enter the library this week, they will be greeted by an unusual sign: “Don’t read these books.”
The sign, directing students to a display of books that have been banned or challenged throughout history, is intended to mentally jolt — cue the record scratch — even the most distracted Sun Devils.
This is the tongue-in-cheek tradition of Banned Books Week, an annual, cautious celebration of books and our right to read them.
“Banned Books Week is probably one of the most important events in the literary profession,” said Ashley Gohr, a First Year Experience librarian with ASU Library. “It’s a week when librarians, publishers, teachers and writers help to educate our communities by inviting deeper conversations about censorship and the power of words and storytelling, especially for marginalized communities.”
ASU Library is looking to open up the event this year to an even larger audience through social media, book displays and other activities that encourage thinking around free speech and about books as a powerful technology.
Gohr says that although the practice of banning books is very serious and concerning, the ASU Library events this week will offer “small acts of creative defiance” that are not only educational but fun too.
Language, sex and race
Books get banned, restricted or challenged for a variety of reasons, Gohr said, but offensive language, sexual content and racism are among the most common.
Just last year, more than 300 challenges to books were recorded by the American Library Association (ALA), a figure which does not include all the censorship attempts made to films, exhibits, newspapers, magazines, broadcasts, plays and performances.
Famously banned books include “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (language, racism), “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (language, violence, sexual content), and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston (sexual content).
Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was once described as “filthy” by some mid-nineteenth century booksellers.
The impulse to censor, Gohr says, is a direct response to the inherent power ideas hold and the strength of books to spread them.
“Books are thought of as dangerous, and they are! They contain ideas and stories that can change minds and lives,” she says.
#WordsHavePower is the tagline for this year’s Banned Books Week, an ALA-sponsored event that ASU Library plans to highlight with increasing force each year.
Plans to grow the annual event include a speaker series, a reading flash mob and public readings of censored work on all of ASU’s campuses.
This year, Gohr and fellow ASU Library staffer Ashley Barckett have been busy pulling books from library shelves — “as many as we can fit,” they say — to include in the Hayden Library banned book display.
The ragtag collection includes such classics as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Beloved” and sits alongside a reading nook where the ASU community is encouraged to linger, interact and explore the books “in question.” Banned book displays will be featured at several other campus libraries as well.
Additionally, Gohr and Barckett have put together a banned book scavenger hunt and set up a button-making station in the Hayden Library mkrspace, for those #RebelReaders who want to wear their Toni Morrisons and Ralph Ellisons on their sleeve.
There will also be a poetry slam in Hayden Library (room C41) on Thursday at 7 p.m., hosted by Amnesty International.
“This is a great opportunity to celebrate the library as a place of access, discovery and inclusion — particularly at an institution like ASU,” said Barckett, a library information specialist. “Many of our international students come from countries that have different views on censorship, and books are still challenged and banned regularly in the U.S. This event is as relevant as ever.”
Barckett and Gohr say they will be wearing buttons and T-shirts throughout the week that signify banned authors and books, such as “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and the book-burning “Fahrenheit 451,” which, Gohr says, might be the most ironic banned book of all.
"It's about banning books," she said.