For What It’s Worth: The economic irony of banned books

Why would you ban a book? And would it even work? Read the blog- if you dare.

Photo Illustration by Kate Alaks

Why would you ban a book? And would it even work? Read the blog- if you dare.

Kate Alaks, Opinion Editor

Hello again! Welcome back!

On the agenda for today… some books.

As the RB Library is avidly promoting, the week of September 23 is Banned Books Week. Looking at the displays and behind the concealing signs they’ve put up to make a point, I began to realize something interesting. Many of the books that are on the display and on subsequent lists of banned or challenged books are novels I have read in my RB English classes.

Freshman year, one of the most significant books we read was Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and we also read Feed, by M. T. Anderson. I’ve been taught numerous other books that were fairly controversial at one time or another: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, 1984 by George Orwell, and Catching Fire (the sequel to the challenged Hunger Games) by Suzanne Collins.

I can’t help but wonder what this means.

Does this signify that the challenging, the attention getting, the controversial books are the ones that mean the most? Are they more significant to our culture than the tame(ish) mainstream books that many people read? Should I, someone who dreams of publishing a novel, be concerned that my ideas aren’t challenging, and my characters don’t swear, and there’s really nothing that controversial about them?

After some careful consideration… yes and no.

Yes, banned books play incredibly important roles in our lives by getting us to think about the world in new, sometimes uncomfortable ways. But they’re not all life-changing, and not everyone responds to them the same way. By the same token, books that no one challenges can change people just as much as anything else!

These books are also likely to crop up in English classes because their very nature warrants discussion and analysis. It is much more likely that we’ll be taught some groundbreaking dystopian book, say, Brave New World, than one of the new dystopias that has jumped on the Hunger Games train. When put into historical context, a lot of these books are even more interesting than just the words on the page.

However, they are not the be all and end all of literature. One of my favorite books is Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones. It’s not challenging anything except some fantasy stereotypes, and there’s really nothing that should offend anyone. The ending is complicated, but it’s not poignantly symbolic of human suffering or anything like that. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t influenced me. I fell in love with the characters, and the author’s writing style has definitely influenced my own.

But that aside- all books have the potential to inspire people in different ways. That’s what people who ban or challenge books are afraid of, and that is exactly why we should not allow book to be banned. Here’s where we come to the economics part, since this totally isn’t just an excuse for me to ramble about books. Nope, definitely not.

When you really think about it, the cost of reading a book is fairly low. It may seem incredibly high these days, when everyone is running to and fro and just don’t have time to read that book. I’m guilty of this, but that’s a whole other column. But all on it’s own, if you’re really dead set on reading that book, it doesn’t take that much. Time, yes. Money? A little, if you buy it, less if you borrow it from the library or steal it from a friend. Any other explicit costs? No. There might be the implicit cost of what you could be doing instead, but if you really want to read that book, the benefits might just outweigh the costs.

And once something’s been read, it can’t be unread. Even if it seems like you haven’t thought about the words, something of them still lingers in your subconscious (This isn’t economics, this is my own personal experience). And econ has no power to drive them from you.

That’s why certain books are banned or challenged. If it’s harder to get ahold of a book, the cost of reading it goes up, and, well, maybe I should watch Star Trek reruns instead of trying to get my hands on it. However, this strategy can backfire.

How, you ask?

Well, we’ve got a whole week devoted to Banned Books, don’t we?

When a book is banned or challenged, it gains a certain prestige. It gets to be on all those shiny lists and displays at the library. And in so doing, the perceived benefit of reading that book increases.

Does this make sense? If you see a book on this list, already you’re probably thinking something along the lines of wow, this must be pretty edgy, and someone doesn’t want me to read it, so… hmmm… it’s probably worth reading, right? I mean, they wouldn’t ban something really lame, right? So already you’re thinking that you’re going to get something out of reading this book that maybe you wouldn’t get out of that new one on the shelf, regardless if this is the type of book you’re looking for or not. The librarians are doing all they can to increase this perceived benefit, since they want us to read something, anything.

Are you going to like all the books on the shelf? Maybe, but probably not. Would you have checked them out otherwise? Maybe, but probably not. Are the librarians being manipulative? Perhaps a little, but you have to admit it’s for a good cause! And, on the other hand, I know of people who would look at the display and think that looks like work! and pick something else. But even they will probably recognize many of the titles.

This comes around, full circle, to what I was discussing earlier. We take note of things with large CENSORED markers across them, because instantly we think that whatever’s in there must be important. English teachers teach things that once had large CENSORED markers across them because often times they are important. But that oughtn’t decrease the value of those possibly extraordinary “acceptable” books that many people like. The actual benefit of each book could be drastically different than it’s perceived benefit.

Darn. I’ve just set myself up for a cliched phrase. Oh well, I’ll shun it.

To conclude… Read banned books.

Or books about economics.