Last week, I began watching The Handmaid’s Tale, a Hulu original series based off of the novel by Margaret Atwood. Set in a dystopian society and ruled by an extreme, fundamentalist regime; the series draws viewers in with multiple storylines, dynamic characters, and pendulum swings oscillating between hope and despair. Along with the brutal objectification of females in this radical, religious Totalitarian society, The Handmaid’s Tale, sheds light on the power of the literate individual.
Books, reading, and writing are outlawed in Gilead, and one scene in an early episode where “The Eyes” are burning books and art, immediately reminded me of other stories about censorship and book banning, such as Fahrenheit 451. The ability to read, write, and think for oneself is seen as a threat to the new government of Gilead and there is not a more powerful illustration of this then in the “Closet Scene” from episode 4. Offred, the main character, was locked in her room for 2 weeks straight and finds a Latin phrase, Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum, carved into the corner of her closet. This single phrase, written by her predecessor who failed to bear a child for the commander and his wife, risked her life to offer hope in the form of words that Offred couldn’t even translate. This small carving of words, hidden in the closet, reignited the fire of freedom that had been dimmed inside of Offred.
Words have the power to transport readers to new places, they can inspire a movement, and bring hope to those who identify with characters they read about or quotes that sing to their heart. This week marks the beginning of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration that recognizes Students’ Right to Read and emphasizes the First Amendment. The theme for this upcoming Banned Books Week (Sept. 24 – Sept. 30) is “Words Have Power. Read a Banned Book.” The words in these banned and challenged books have the power to connect readers to literary communities and offer diverse perspectives. And when these books are threatened with removal from communal shelves, your words have the power to challenge censorship. (ALA)
The Right to Read implies that individuals have the choice in what they read and the ability to be selective in this endeavor. The same freedoms are extended to the group as well and oppose the individual’s efforts to limit what others read. “The right of any individual not just to read but to read whatever he or she wants to read is basic to a democratic society,” (NCTE). Censorship and the banning of books limit the access of information for students. It distorts their understanding of information, creates bias, and neglects to provide a whole picture of the successes and challenges of a community or culture.
In this age of information and with the access to content at the touch of a button, it is essential to develop critical thinking skills and savvy discerners of information instead of limiting what students read. Just as important is the classroom discussion around censorship, along with individual dives into inquiry around bias, banned books, and healthy skepticism.
During Banned Books Week, I urge you to take part in the activities or create one of your own. In my classroom, I had students select a commonly banned or challenged book, preferably one they were familiar with, and answer the following questions:
- Why is this book banned or frequently challenged?
- What passages, lines, words, or characters are often attributed to the challenging or banning of the book?
- What are the different opinions about this book?
- What is your opinion?
- Should this book be banned? Should any book be censored or banned?
- How does censorship play a role in your life?
This short exercise made students aware of the issue, the sides, take a stand, and defend their thoughts. It provided us a perfect launch into Huck Finn (another frequently challenged book), as well as a larger, conceptual lens on censorship and the Right to Read.
Literacy = Power, Opportunities, Democracy, and Improved Professional & Personal Lives. And although contemporary books and movies, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, paint an extreme cautionary example of censorship and banning books, it does illustrate the importance of freedom and the role literacy plays in our lives.
***And if you are wondering the translation of the Latin words Offred found hidden in her closet, here it is: “Don’t let the Bastards grind you down”… fitting, don’t you think?