O'TOOLE: Support the freedom to read

On Sept. 16, the Randolph County (N.C.) school board voted 5-2 to remove Ralph Ellison’s landmark 1952 novel “Invisible Man” from recommended reading lists and school libraries. When I read about it in a Facebook post by National Public Radio, I hadn’t even read “Invisible Man.”
Oct 1, 2013


I was furious, anyway.

How could a school board ban a novel that had beat out Hemingway and Steinbeck for a National Book Award, and was named one of the books that shaped America by the Library of Congress?

It smacked of censorship and thought control. How could something so appalling happen in 21st-century America?

The effects of the ban, as it turns out, have been mostly good.          

First of all, it heightened awareness and interest for Ellison and his novel. High demand in Randolph County resulted in long waiting lists at the library and bookstore.

Many students didn’t have to wait, however, thanks to a New York editor formerly from the area who convinced the publisher to donate 100 copies of the novel to the local bookstore, and to benevolent residents who purchased copies of the book and left them at the store for any student who wanted one.

Media all over the country reported on the ban, so I hope that awareness and interest has increased elsewhere, as well. I know I drove immediately to Loutit District Library to check out the book and see for myself what all the fuss was about.

I can’t provide a summary of “Invisible Man” because I haven’t finished it (the edition I’m reading is 581 pages). A thorough synopsis can be found at amazon.com.

What I can tell you is that I was hooked from the opening lines: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. ... I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. ... When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

I can tell you I am engrossed by the plot and charmed by the writing style. I can tell you that I can identify with the feeling of being invisible; and though I can’t relate to the experience of being African-American in a white world, I feel I am learning something about it.

A second effect is that the public outcry convinced the Randolph County school board to reconsider. On Sept. 25, the board voted 6-1 in favor of revoking the ban.

“Invisible Man” is back in Randolph County, and that’s because people from all over America flooded the school board and the local paper with letters protesting the ban. This is an example of democracy at its best. This is an example of what can happen when people see injustice and speak up. This gives me hope for our struggling country.

A third effect is that the timing of the ban’s reversal — during Banned Books Week, the last week in September — brought publicity to other books that have been banned or challenged. The purpose of Banned Books Week is to bring together individuals “in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular,” according to the American Library Association, one of the event’s sponsors.

The Office For Intellectual Freedom compiles reports of challenged books: books that a person or group has attempted to remove or restrict; and banned books: those that have been removed upon being challenged. Did you know that classics such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are still frequently challenged or banned?

Contemporary works face challenges or bans, too. “The Kite-Runner.” a novel by Khaled Hosseini; and “The Glass Castle,” a memoir by Jeanette Walls, are among the most frequently challenged books of 2012. I’ve read them both, and I can say that these are two of the most affecting books I’ve read in recent years. It both angers and frightens me that somewhere in America people are trying to keep others from the treasures of these books.

“Invisible Man” is back in Randolph County schools. Banned Books Week 2013 is over. But the commitment to the ideals of Banned Books Week, of the freedom to read, must be ongoing.

That is why, after “Invisible Man,” the next book I’m going to read is “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie. I discovered it on one of the lists of frequently challenged and banned books on the American Library Association’s website at ala.org/bbooks.

What book are you reading next?




"the next book I’m going to read is “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie"

I own several of Sherman Alexis' books and have thoroughly enjoy each of them. If you're new to his words I'd suggest "The lone ranger and tonto fist fight in Heaven". just because that was my introduction to him. If you're open to a different way of thinking then his books will become treasures for you.


O'Toole - an engaging, well written article!

Thank you for reminding us that there are still those that threaten our freedom of thought by attempting to ban written works. There is not a book mentioned in this article, and some of them movies, that I have not read/seen and enjoyed. I don't agree with everything I read; who does? But the activation of the dream by the author's suggestions, to question who and what we are, continually; these are the things that we all need to strive for by reading.

Reading is third on the list of the things I enjoy in this life; family, music, and reading. Isn't it funny how all of these things can be enjoyed almost anywhere and with little or no expense? Who was it that shared with us the proverb that the best things in life are free; it is also a duet by Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson.


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