Celebrating the Freedom to Read

A Wally Lamb novel and the 2013 UConn Reads selection were among the once-banned books that have been read aloud at the UConn Co-op this week.

UConn’s bookstore, together with bookstores, libraries, and book professionals around the country, celebrated Banned Books Week (Sept. 23-27) with a Virtual Read Out, to bring attention to ongoing threats to freedom of expression.

This year’s focus on She’s Come Undone and Persepolis offered a strong reminder to the UConn community that the risk of censorship is never far away.

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Since 1982, when Banned Books Week began, more than 11,300 books have been challenged in the U.S. In 2012 alone, there were 464 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom.

The Captain Underpants series received the most challenges in 2012. Dav Pilkey, the author and illustrator, visited the UConn Co-op last year in conjunction with the Connecticut Children’s Book Fair. There were no complaints in Storrs! In addition to the children who came to see Pilkey, many college men who still had a fondness for Captain Underpants came. They shared stories of how important the books were in making them readers. Unfortunately, the series has been repeatedly challenged in schools.

In August of this year, the Connecticut Department of Corrections removed She’s Come Undone, the bestselling novel by Wally Lamb, from its approved reading list for prison libraries. Lamb, a UConn alum who taught at UConn and lives in Storrs, wrote on his Facebook page, “Citing sexual explicitness as the ‘official’ reason, CT DOC has pulled from its prison library shelves my 21-year old novel about a troubled young woman who goes through hard times and then fixes her life. Apparently a few sex scenes (tame by today’s standards) negate the value of the novel’s message about the necessity of personal rehabilitation.”

The post created an outcry on social media, which was noticed by Michael Lawlor, Gov. Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy. By the following night the book was reinstated.

The Chicago Public School system banned Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi last March. The Complete Persepolis is the UConn Reads pick. The school system sent out a notice requiring Chicago public schools to remove the book from their shelves. Shortly thereafter, the school system focused its ban on the book’s use in the seventh-grade curriculum, stating that the images and language were too graphic.

Persepolis is an award-winning graphic novel based on Satrapi’s life and opens with her childhood during the time of the Iranian Revolution. The student book club 451 opposed the censorship, as did several First Amendment groups. Levi Todd, one of the students said, “I’ve got to give major props to Marjane Satrapi. When she found out about the challenge on Persepolis, she wrote a public letter, asking all the questions CPS wouldn’t answer.”

Books are often censored by well-intentioned people who believe that the ideas in a particular work are offensive, dangerous, or pornographic. However, the First Amendment guarantees our right to choose for ourselves what to read.

During Banned Books Week, the UConn Co-op invites members of the UConn community to come and participate in the Virtual Read Out by saying a few words about a censored book, and reading a short passage. This year, people are asked to read from She’s Come Undone or Persepolis. Videos of the readings will be uploaded to the Virtual Read Out Channel of YouTube, along with videos taped in other bookstores and libraries. Readers are still welcome.

The UConn Co-op is an active member of the American Booksellers Foundation for the Freedom of Expression. The Foundation’s mission is “to promote and protect the free exchange of ideas, particularly those contained in books, by opposing restrictions on the freedom of speech; issuing statements on significant free expression controversies; participating in legal cases involving First Amendment rights; collaborating with other groups with an interest in free speech; and providing education about the importance of free expression to booksellers, other members of the book industry, politicians, the press, and the public.”

Watch video from the 2012 and 2011 Virtual Read Outs here. Video from the 2013 UConn Co-op Read Out will be available on the site soon.