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Why and How Censor?

By Norval P. Barksdale *
desirable by a fixed budget which will not
T Oquestion--which
censor, or not to censor, that is the
confronts every libra- permit unlimited purchases--the personal
rian almost daily, and all too frequently the and subjective element will be there. There
answer given is a purely uni-personal one. are times, however, when the public by its
The conscientious librarian, however, must demands should make selections imperative
undoubtedly hesitate long before deciding to rather than optional.
ban or not to ban a book, in view of the in-
justices and errors that have been committeed
in the past in the name of censorship. Good and Bad Books
The history of the literature of modern When, in truth, is a book "good" or
times is filled with instances of the censor- "bad" ? The whole question of "good" books
ing and rejection of works which today are and "bad" books is a personal one--and
immortal. To attempt to name them would relative. Indeed, as has been aptly said,
lend to the making of a many-paged volume there are no "good" books, and no "bad"
and yet such a book might possess the pecu- books. There are only good times for read-
liar virtue of giving us a touchstone to the ing certain books and bad times for reading
secret of literary excellence. So outstanding certain books. A book might be good to
and so dearly beloved are many, yes, most, one, and bad to another; and even the same
of the books that would appear in such a book might have varying effects upon the
volume, that a study of what librarians do same reader, depending upon the. conditions.
not want might be a most fruitful key to the under which he becomes acquainted with it.
question: What is good literature? I am The good preacher of Ecclesiastes, after elab-
sometimes tempted to think that a list of the orating upon the statement that "for every-
contrary of what librarians, past and present, thing there is a season, and a time for every
have wanted would lead us not too far away purpose under heaven," might have added
from the answer. that there is a time to read Grapes of Wrath
When we think of the erstwhile Pariahs and a time to read The Light That Failed.
of the book world, there comes to mind in What the word does depends upon what
rapid succession names like Havelock Ellis, the word finds. There is nothing fixed and
Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Baudelaire, Flaubert; definite in a book; it contains only what the
titles like The Scarlet Letter, Tess of the individual reader gets out of it, and that
D'Urbervilles, the Decameron, Gargantua means, as a rule, what he puts into it. It is
and Pantagruel, and even Rene Marin's Ba- even possible that author and reader will not
touala, refused, "because," as a lady librarian see eye to eye on this question of book im-
in a large mid-western university said, when port, because even the author can not deter-
the writer offered her a copy for the library, mine the message of his book once he re-
"it portrays the white man in Africa in an leases it, any more than the electrical engi-
unfavorable light"! Although the last named neer can say what his electricity will do once
book was a Goncourt prize winner, I men- he generates it and sends it out over the
tion it merely to show how frail is the thread wires.
that holds suspended the sword of Damocles
over the head of a poor book.
The Reader is the Book
I realize, of course, that it is impossible to If a librarian or a board of selection felt
remove completely the personal element from it incumbent upon themselves to pass upon
the question. As long as librarians insist the fitness or the non-fitness of a book to be
upon the right to censor the books that go read by the patrons of the library, then the
upon the shelves of the public's library-- most important step would be the study not
even if that censorship is exercised under the of the book, but of the patron. In a certain
guise of "selection" rendered necessary and sense we might even say that the reader is
the book. And just as the strings of the
'~ Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Mo, piano or the violin vibrate into life only at
JANUARY 1941 381

the virtuoso's touch, so does the latent possi- novel is the language of obscenity, but ob-
bility of the book become a vibrant reality scenity is not necessarily inherent in any
only when completed and complemented by given speech. Obscenity, like other phases of
the personality and the intelligence of the immorality, derives from a wilful and con-
individual reader; and each book has a dif- scious deflection from a generally accepted
ferent message for each reader. The reader moral code. The characters of Grapes of
is as a mold shaping and forming the plastic Wrath use the language which they have
stuff that the author put into his book. heard and used from childhood. They do
When I was a younger teacher, it irked not have two languages, one of which they
me because my students did not see the Cid elect to use on certain conditions as do most
as I saw it. I thought that we were reading of us. Their speech does, therefore, have
the same play, but I know now that each of quite a different ring in their ears than the
us had a different play in his hand. The stu- same speech would have in others. I think,
dents could not see my Cid for the very therefore, that much of the condemnation
simple reason that it did not yet exist for that has been heaped upon the book comes
them, and theirs had long since ceased to from a failure on the part of the reader to
exist for me, because the Cid was one thing orient himself--spatially and morally--so
to me at twenty, another at thirty, another at that the characters may be impartially judged.
forty. When this is done I think that the Joads
Learned teachers and commentators often will appear as essentially human beings, po s -
lose themselves in nice subtleties in prating sessed of the same hopes, the same ideals,
over the message of a book, and insist that the same emotional equipment as most other
their students give them back comparable American citizens, and with much higher
sentiments. This is fundamentally unsound, ideals than many. Human beings may also
however, because a book is only as emotion- wear overalls, use an unpolished speech, and
ally old as is the reader. In fact it has been drive jalopies--strange as it may seem to
not too inaptly suggested that a book must more favored members of the population,
and can come of age only with the help and including librarians.
approval of generations of readers.
Teachers, critics, and others who have to Individual Reactions
do with the forming of ideas relative to
books often do great harm to author and It would be grossly inconsistent, however,
reader alike by forcing upon the public per- for me to insist that everybody see this book
as I saw it. Each of us is entitled to his re-
sonal opinions, and insisting that these are
action, a fact which critics and librarians fre-
the only ones inherent in the book. I have quently overlook in insisting that others see
been miserable for years because early in my a book as they do, especially when their
school life a teacher insisted on drilling into viewpoint demands banishment of the guilty
us the statement that Longfellow was not a volume from the library. In view of past
poet, but merely a versifier. I have always mistakes as attested by a long history of
loved Longfellow, but even now I feel a abortive censorships, should we not be a little
little low-brow when I slip away before I go wary of repeating those errors ? And since
to sleep at night to read "Hiawatha," "The people will read books, whether they have
Building of the Ship," "Evangeline"--so been censored or not, would it not be better
strongly was I impressed at the time by my for us to worry less about the printed page,
teacher's judgment. Longfellow helps me to and think more about developing an open,
find myself. His poems quicken my imagi- critical attitude in the reader, which will be
nation, relieve the tension of my daily life, the best safeguard against any possibly "un-
renew my idealism, and must therefore be healthy" book (if such there be) ? This will
"good" poetry, at least for me--because I m e a n that in many cases teacher, librarian,
believe that, like beauty, literature is as liter- and professional critic alike will have to be
ature does. a little less insistent on their own interpreta-
Likewise I found Grapes of Wrath a very tion of a literary work, and a little more wilb
stimulating and morally clean piece of lit- ing to develop and trust the critical faculty
erature. It is true that the language of the of the reading public.

TITLE: Why and How Censor?

SOURCE: Wilson Library Bulletin (R) 15 Ja 1941
PAGE(S): 380-1

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