Fuck. Drugs. Sex.
If the above upsets or offends you, you can stop reading, you have that right – a right that has been taken away from a bunch of young Kiwis who may want to read a book called Into the River .
For non-New Zealand readers, the book – an award-winning novel aimed at young adults – is at the center of an embarrassing furore after being removed from the shelves following a complaint by conservative lobby group Family First. The group is concerned about some of the book’s content, including drug taking, language and sexual themes.
While it hasn’t been officially ‘banned’ as such, at the moment it is illegal to buy it, sell it or loan it to one of your mates until a classification decision is made on it. In this case they are looking for an age restriction.
I’m not a huge bandwagon jumper, but I am on this one boots and all – and not just because I love books and am a writer myself.
Firstly, encouraging young people to read is a huge thing. It helps them learn about themselves, empathise with others and start thinking about their place in the world. If we can’t give our young people enough respect to make their own decisions about reading and learn for themselves what works for them and what doesn’t, that says a lot more about us than it does about them.
And how dumb do we think these kids actually are? Do people really think that they would never have thought about having sex or taking drugs if they hadn’t read about it in a book? What about the TV shows and films they are bombarded with? What about life? You can’t ban that.
All Family First is going to achieve is to make a book many kids had probably never heard of seem that much more attractive.
When I was in primary school a ‘helpful’ librarian wouldn’t let me take Anne of Avonlea from the school library because it had ‘adult themes’ – so I turned around and got it out of the local library instead.
The same librarian blocked me from taking out the Lord of the Rings trilogy because it was deemed too ‘difficult’. We had a ‘five finger word test’ where if you got more than five words wrong reading a passage aloud, you weren’t allowed to take that book out. (It was the 80s, they had some strange ideas.) And being Tolkien of course I had pronunciation problems and failed miserably. In the end I borrowed a copy from one of my Mum’s friends – gleefully announcing which page I was up to at silent reading time “page 1015 today Miss” (yes I was ‘that’ kid).
I pinched my Dad’s copy of Jaws (sorry Dad!) when I was about 10 or 11 because word around the school was that it had rude bits in it. I wasn’t particularly interested in the book but I got kudos from some of the standard 4 boys for having a copy. In the end I ended up secretly reading the whole thing and rather enjoyed it (and didn’t really understand the rude bits anyway).
Of course libraries and librarians have changed a lot now. They are still careful about what they lend to who but they are realists and their main goal is to encourage reading. As a school librarian said on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report yesterday there are books available in school libraries that have much dodgier content – The Game of Thrones series for a start – good luck getting that banned!
I have read the supposedly dodgy bits of Into the River and didn’t find them terribly shocking. I had read much worse myself as a teen. In fact one of the scenes refers to a girl ‘floating away on a Lilo of pleasure’ which just made me giggle and want to go for a swim.
Funnily enough, despite the mind polluting material I read as a teen, when it came to writing my own book I ended up censoring myself. I wrote a chapter about utterly losing it around half way to Tonga and originally used the phrase “I want off this effing boat!” My editor came back with a simple suggestion – “why don’t you just say fuck?”. I was a little taken aback, but he had a point. At that point of the story, I was really really upset. There was no point in beating about the bush. Because there weren’t a lot of swears in the book when they did appear it gave the scene that much more impact. We weren’t going for shock value. It was a way of illustrating that something was really scary or frustrating.
Today a group of like-minded book lovers (including the fabulous NZ writer Elizabeth Knox) demonstrated the ridiculousness of the situation by holding a silent reading of Into the River in protest outside Wellington’s Unity Books . The books had to be read outside the store or the shop could be considered to be ‘displaying’ them and risk a fine. Those tempted to let somebody read their copy over their shoulder were also technically in the gun for $10,000.
It was great to see such a good turn out on a grey Wellington day, fighting censorship and supporting a Kiwi writer.
Civil disobedience through reading is awesome.
Discovery through reading is awesome.
Reading is awesome.
And as far as I am concerned anyone who tries to fetter access to that is the enemy.