October 26, 2012

Banned books get airing at Read-Out


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Parents wanted “Winnie-the-Pooh” banned in a Kansas school district, saying talking animals are an insult to God.

Passages from the much loved children’s classic about the adorable bear were read out loud during the recent Banned Book Read-Out at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Feinberg Library, among others that have been described as controversial, sexually explicit and vulgar.

Students, faculty and the SUNY Plattsburgh President John Ettling volunteered as readers for the event, planned by Cerise Oberman, a distinguished librarian at the campus library, and Associate Librarian Elin O’Hara-Gony in support of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. 

Participants chose their books from a list of the Library Association’s frequently challenged and banned works. Many titles were of personal significance to the readers, who offered their insights after reading passages from them.


David Stone, an associate professor at the college, read from “Native Son.” He said he had found the book when he was in high school and that Bigger, the main character, spoke to him in a way that other adolescent protagonists did not.

He was able to identify with “Native Son” because it portrayed the life of a black family living in South Chicago, and author Richard Wright was not afraid to challenge readers with its show of racial inequality.

“I related a lot more to being black and being poor and to some extent being trapped,” he said.

Inequality was a concurrent theme in several of the books chosen for the reading. In Ian Foster’s “A Passage To India,” there are scenes depicting the segregation in British-ruled India that Priyanka Chakraborty found interesting.

Chakraborty, an assistant professor who is originally from India, said the Read-Out was valuable for promoting awareness of these books and the reasons they were banned.

“It kind of brings to the limelight how the British treated Indians,” Chakraborty said of “A Passage To India.”


Ettling read from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a book that Stone said flusters readers with its use of the “N” word. He said the difference between the accurate historical depiction of the word and its use in modern society is enormous. It reflects popular thinking of the time and tells the readers a bit of truth about slavery in the South.

In other words, he said, he could understand Mark Twain’s use of the invective, but not, by contrast, film director Quentin Tarantino’s “infatuation” with the repugnant term.

Other books read from at the event included “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “In Cold Blood,” “Slaughterhouse Five” and “The Great Gatsby.”

Jonathan Slater read from “Sophie’s Choice,” a novel about a young girl who is witnessing firsthand the buildup and the execution of the Holocaust. Slater, who leads the college’s annual Holocaust remembrance, said that those who have challenged and banned “Sophie’s Choice” for some highly sexual references missed the bigger picture.

“Being shocked is not a reason to ban a book. Sometimes being shocked is a good thing,” Slater said. 


Slater also said “Sophie’s Choice” has previously been banned in places like apartheid South Africa because of similarities between the horrors described in William Styron’s book and realities that governments look to conceal.

“There is kind of a thematic relationship between all of the books. Things like oppression, sexism, racism, homophobia and human sexuality were common themes in all of the readings that I heard,” Stone said.

The event was held to promote the freedom to read, and the readers said they thought it was successful. They discussed the nature of censorship after each reading and why books get banned. They agreed that even though it is meant to protect, censorship winds up stifling the flow of ideas and stunting the emotional and mental growth of would-be readers.

”It is ideology — often it comes from the right — and most of the time it leaves me head scratching,” Stone said. “As an educator, I believe in the free and open exchange of ideas.”