The (il)logical extremes of censorship

Free­dom to Read Week: Feb­ru­ary 22–28, 2015.

Free­dom to Read, Entry #4: Amer­i­can sci­ence fic­tion author Nick DiChario on the apex of all book chal­lenges

One of my all-time favorite banned books is Salman Rushdie’s The Satan­ic Vers­es, in large part because in the fall of 2002 I had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet Rushdie dur­ing his appear­ance at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester in upstate New York. I’m an Amer­i­can, and Rochester is where I was born and raised. At the time, I was the direc­tor of edu­ca­tion for a non-prof­it lit­er­ary cen­ter, and a friend from the uni­ver­si­ty had kind­ly giv­en me a tick­et to the cock­tail par­ty after the read­ing where Rushdie was expect­ed to min­gle.

Rushdie was well known by then. The Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni had ordered Rushdie’s death for writ­ing a nov­el that many Mus­lims viewed as blas­phe­mous, and he’d been liv­ing his life under the threat of assas­si­na­tion since 1989. I couldn’t help but won­der if I would have had the courage to do what Rushdie had done for so long if I’d been faced with the prospect of dying for my art, for the right to say what I want­ed to say know­ing peo­ple would hate me and want to kill me for it. For this, Rushdie was a hero to me, and I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to shake his hand and tell him so.

Those of us priv­i­leged enough to live in the West­ern world might think we’re immune to cen­sor­ship and its rav­ages, but it’s not so. The Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion main­tains a list of books that hun­dreds of groups and indi­vid­u­als attempt to fre­quent­ly ban from library shelves each year. The top five books on that list are, in order of appear­ance, 1) The Great Gats­by, 2) The Catch­er in the Rye, 3) The Grapes of Wrath, 4) To Kill a Mock­ing­bird, and 5) The Col­or Pur­ple — arguably five of the most influ­en­tial books in mod­ern Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. What would hap­pen to these irre­place­able words, arranged just so, if we weren’t vig­i­lant about pro­tect­ing them?

Cen­sor­ship in all its var­i­ous forms hides every­where, but some­times it jumps out of the bush­es and scares the hell out of us. The gun­ning down that occurred at the office of the satir­i­cal news­pa­per Char­lie Heb­do in Paris last month serves as a sad and trag­ic reminder. It made me think again about the impor­tance of the writ­ten word and why peo­ple want to read and write and pub­lish. Some­times it’s about truth and jus­tice. Some­times it’s about prin­ci­ples and giv­ing a voice to those who don’t have one. Some­times it’s about art, or his­to­ry, or love, or laughs, or mon­ey. And some­times it’s about life and death.

Cen­sor­ship is a plate served best with fear and pow­er. Those in pow­er (or those who hunger for it) are afraid of the thoughts inside our heads, how our dreams, if they’re allowed to man­i­fest, might affect oth­ers, and how our words could under­mine their author­i­ty and chal­lenge their beliefs. The free­dom to read, the free­dom to write, and the free­dom to speak are bond­ed togeth­er as one. Make no mis­take, words are as dan­ger­ous as they are beau­ti­ful because they have the pow­er to move our hearts and minds, and because we, as human beings, are some­times will­ing to fight and die for them. Nobody knows this bet­ter than the ene­my.

Salman Rushdie

The killings at Char­lie Heb­do should be a wake­up call to all of us. There are still peo­ple out there who want to con­trol what we write and how we write it, what we read and how we read it, and what we say and how we say it. These peo­ple will always have excus­es and ratio­nal­iza­tions in their attempts to con­trol our thoughts and repress our voic­es: Reli­gion. Pol­i­tics. Right­eous­ness. Pater­nal­ism. Pro­tec­tion­ism. Patri­o­tism. Race. Gen­der. Trea­son. War. Order. Phi­los­o­phy. Ide­ol­o­gy. Dog­ma. For Your Own Damn Good. Etc., etc., ad nau­se­am.

When I final­ly got my chance to shake Rushdie’s hand and tell him he was my hero, he hitched an eye­brow and offered me a shrewd smile. After all these years, I can’t trust myself to quote his exact words, but the essence of it went some­thing like this: He did not see him­self as a hero for writ­ing the book. Instead, he saw us, all of us, as heroes for read­ing it.

I hope every­one will keep that in mind dur­ing Free­dom to Read Week in your great coun­try of Cana­da. Not very many of us will need to make the choice Salman Rushdie made, or pay the price that the brave peo­ple at Char­lie Heb­do paid. But all of us can do our small part. We can exer­cise our free­dom to read. We might not think of it as a coura­geous act, but look around, my friends. It’s a small world after all.

Please, please, read a banned book this week. Read The Satan­ic Vers­es if you haven’t already. There’s no time like the present. And there’s no guar­an­tee the book will be around for­ev­er.

Nick DiChario’s short sto­ries have appeared in many mag­a­zines and antholo­gies across the world. He’s been nom­i­nat­ed for the Hugo and a World Fan­ta­sy Award, and his nov­els A Small and Remark­able Life (2006) and Val­ley of Day-Glo (2008) each received nom­i­na­tions for the John W. Camp­bell Memo­r­i­al Award for Best Nov­el of the Year. His many jobs have includ­ed paper­boy, con­struc­tion work­site gopher, dish­wash­er at a Catholic sem­i­nary, cre­ative writ­ing pro­fes­sor and work­shop instruc­tor, indie book­store own­er, edu­ca­tion direc­tor for a non-prof­it lit­er­ary cen­ter, and writer/editor of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions.