I lost my faith in God sometime in 1989. I remember the day clearly. I was at Sunday mass and listening to Father Joe’s homily. He stated that he had just finished reading a novel that was currently gathering a lot of commentary, so the book was well known at the time. Without going into specific details he strongly recommended that we not read the book. He did not come right out and say that to read it would mark us as sinners, but when your perish priest asks you to do something you listen. I’m not sure how many of the sheep in his flock actually heeded his advice, but the request made an impression on me. The book, incidentally, was The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
I clearly recall feeling angry with Father Joe for asking us not to read a certain book. In 1989 I was mostly reading fantasy so my voyages into serious fiction had not really begun. Yet, after hearing the homily I felt compelled to go out and purchase the novel so I could read it. I was working at a local bookstore at the time and although we had no threats of violence for carrying the novel, corporate headquarters did ask us to keep copies in the back and not display them. Be that as it may. I started to read the book, was quite bored, and found myself unable to finish it. Several years later I would return to The Satanic Verses and find myself unable to forget it. I’ve even met Rushdie a number of times and have taught the book in one of my classes. Now it is part of my personal canon.
This is not really about religion or the time I lost my faith, nor is it about The Satanic Verses, but it’s about censorship and the power religion too often has over our right to make our own decisions. I recall not wanting to be associated with a God that would forbid the reading of certain texts, and I still don’t. I suspect the motives of most clergy and am wary of those who believe that I cannot have a fulfilling life without Jesus or that my soul is lost without him. Well, I will think about the afterlife when I get there. For now, I’m concentrating on the moment, and it just happens to be Banned Books Week here in the United States.
Since 1982 Banned Books Week has celebrated the freedom to read during the last week of September. According to the American Library Association, hundreds of books are placed on banned lists each year. Banned Books Week gives schools and communities a chance to reflect and openly discuss the damage censorship does to a free society. But we really need more than one week. Fighting against censorship and the banning of books is a constant battle with no end in sight.
It’s astounding to me that books continue to be banned by certain organizations and individuals in the twenty-first century. Only recently a disgruntled parent demanded that copies of Nickel and Dimed be removed from a local high school library because it went against the teachings of Jesus or some such nonsense. Happily, the students rose up and demanded an end to censorship. Unhappily, the board of education for that town caved into one parent’s request. The battle goes on.
As long as there are those who are offended by certain books and feel the need to “protect” the community from damnation, censorship will continue to be a threat.
I’ve replaced the concept of God with knowledge and the library is now my church. This is not unique to my experience however, it’s one of the major tenets of the European Enlightenment. Whenever I read a book now, especially if it’s on some banned book list, I feel something almost like salvation.