Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read

Image Courtesy of ALA
Image Courtesy of ALA

Banned Books Week (September 21−27, 2014) is always a red letter week on my calendar. Some people think that books are no longer banned since consumers can readily purchase most titles. On the surface, that view many appear correct, but access to books can be limited in other ways.

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information.

Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. ( American Library Association Website [ALA])

By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This happens only thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.

The ALA’s website provides extensive information about banned and challenged books, along with lists of frequently challenged books. Each year, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the top ten most frequently challenged books in order to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. The ALA condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information.

A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. The ALA estimates that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported.

According to the ALA, from 2000 to 2009, 5,099 challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom.
•1,577 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
•1,291 challenges due to “offensive language”;
•989 challenges due to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”;
•619 challenged due to “violence”‘ and
•361 challenges due to “homosexuality.”

Further, 274 materials were challenged due to “occult” or “Satanic” themes, an additional 291 were challenged due to their “religious viewpoint,” and 119 because they were “anti-family.”
Please note that the number of challenges and the number of reasons for those challenges do not match, because works are often challenged on more than one ground.

1,639 of these challenges were in school libraries; 1,811 were in classrooms; 1,217 took place in public libraries. There were 114 challenges to materials used in college classes; and 30 to academic libraries.

There are isolated cases of challenges to library materials made available in or by prisons, special libraries, community groups, and students. The vast majority of challenges were initiated by parents (2,535), with patrons and administrators to follow (516 and 489 respectively).

The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiled lists of the Top Ten Challenged Books by Year: 2001-2013 .

Out of 307 challenges as reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom the results for 2013 were:

1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
Reasons: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for A Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
Reasons: Occult/Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
10. Bone (series), by Jeff Smith
Reasons: Political viewpoint, racism, violence

This year, I am even more passionate about censorship and banned books because the Cape Henlopen School Board , in my home state, Delaware, caved to pressure from a small group and banned one book selected for a high school summer reading list.

Speak out. Attend a public reading. Make your voice heard.

Linda Fairstein’s Love Letter to Grand Central Terminal, New York

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Approximately 750,000 people visit New York’s Grand Central Terminal (GCT) each day. Two-thirds of them race to catch trains, while the remainder, tourists, stroll through the historic Beaux-Arts landmark. GCT has been featured in hundreds of movies, TV shows, novels, music videos, photos, advertisements, and other media formats. As a result, the stately building has become the World’s sixth most visited tourist attraction and is recognized around the globe.

In her latest novel, Terminal City, best-selling author Linda Fairstein pays tribute to GCT, and has once again created a fast-paced police procedural featuring her popular protagonist, New York City DA Alexandra Cooper. I enjoy Fairstein’s novels because they have such a strong sense of place, that the location becomes an additional character.

Image Courtesy of Fcb981 via Wikipedia
Image Courtesy of Fcb981 via Wikipedia

Built by and named for the New York Central Railroad in the heyday of American long-distance passenger rail travel, GCT is the world’s largest terminal covering 49 acres with 33 miles of track. Its architecture is opulent, immediately recognizable, and critical to the plot development of Terminal City.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

The ceiling of the GCT features prominently in the novel. As noted by Fairstein, the star filled sky depicted has a number of astronomical inaccuracies. Some constellations appear correctly, while others are reversed left-to-right. Additionally, the overall arrangement of the constellations is flipped. In the novel, Fairstein recounts a story, in which GCT owner and builder Cornelius Vanderbilt said the constellation painting was meant to reflect God’s view of the heavens, rather than man’s. Of course, this could only be true if the entire image had been painted as a mirror image. The official explanation takes the notion of otherworldly viewing into account, and says that artist, Paul Helleu was inspired by a medieval manuscript that showed the heavens as they would have been seen from outside the celestial sphere.

Eagle eyed visitors to GCT will want to search out two ceiling secrets not mentioned in Terminal City. First, there is a small hole in the midst of the stars right above the image of Pisces, and is the result of the NASA’s 1957 American Redstone missile exhibit. Second, there’s a small, black rectangle on the side of the mural. Workers using cheesecloth dipped in soapy water took one year, and $1 million, to scrub the ceiling clean. The small black patch shows how dirty the ceiling was prior to renovation; analysis of the sludge showed it was primarily cigarette tar.

The secrets of GCT continue below the main concourse level. While it may not be officially acknowledged, lower levels conceal a special track built for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Some secrets of the terminal may seem far-fetched, but Fairstein proves once again that she knows her stuff and sticks to the facts. Many visitors are familiar with the GCT Clock, that reportedly has four faces made of opal. If that’s true, it would have an estimated value of $10-20 million.

Image Courtesy of Ingfbruno Via Wikipedia
Image Courtesy of Ingfbruno Via Wikipedia

Less apparent is the secret staircase hidden inside the information booth. The central brass cylinder houses a spiral staircase that leads to the lower level information booth in the dining concourse.

Image Courtesy of (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)
Image Courtesy of (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Grand Central Terminal Tours are available. If you go, be sure to visit the Whispering Gallery outside of the Oyster Bar restaurant. The vaulted tile ceilings produce an acoustical quirk. Stand in one of the corners facing the wall and whatever you say will be carried across to the other corner, no matter how softly you speak. Fans of Mad Men will recognize the Oyster Bar, and its famous vaulted, Guastavino tiled ceilings.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia