Banned Books Week 2014 fast approacheth, marching to the cadence of its creed “Thou shalt not inhibit free speech.”
An annual celebration of the freedom to read, Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in the form of events and exhibits highlighting issues surrounding censorship. In its 32-year history alone, over 11,000 books have been challenged.
The vast majority of challenges to reading material, according to the American Library Association (ALA), are made by parents. School and university libraries, public libraries, classrooms, and businesses across the nation see attempts to ban books on a regular, if not frequent, basis; Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said she encounters an attempt at book-banning or censorship every week. Banned books range from contemporary bestsellers to centuries-old classics, from fictional narratives to historical and biographical nonfiction, and from children’s fairy tales to adult erotica.
Fortunately, committed librarians, teachers, parents, students, and other individuals have risen to these challenges with entreaties of their own, and most challenges never result in a ban. But when they do? It’s usually for predictable reasons. Here are ten reasons why books are routinely banned or challenged, followed by five much better reasons that books of all kinds should be defended and preserved. (Unless otherwise specified, all examples come from the ALA website.)
So off we go into the murky mindset of those who would take away our beloved stories and fictional best friends. Banned books typically include one of the following “poisonous” ingredients:
1. Racial Themes
Scores of books, from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, have been banned for exploring racial themes or depicting racism directed at various groups of people. The N-word is, in fact, a one-way ticket to book bonfires, even if the whole point of your book is to condemn or deconstruct racism.
Because if we all pretend a problem doesn’t exist, usually it goes away on its own.
2. Alternative Lifestyles
Unless a book contains strictly conventional, conservative values and conduct, it has probably been banned somewhere, at some point—but more likely many places, many times. So-called alternative lifestyles and “deviant” behaviors that prompt libraries, schools, and businesses to ban books include drug use, fornication, and homosexuality.
Brideshead Revisited and The Outsiders are two such examples. And then there’s Go Ask Alice—the most frequently banned book in high school libraries, largely due to its depiction of drug use. The challengers really missed the point on this one, though: Go Ask Alice unflinchingly (and perhaps a bit exaggeratedly) illustrates the negative consequences of drug use, including but not limited to homelessness, rape, prostitution, commitment to an insane asylum (yes, really), and eventually, death.
In 1977, the Ku Klux Klan—yes, that Ku Klux Klan—took moral issue (!) with Of Mice and Men for its profanity and demanded the book be a) removed from school libraries in South Carolina, and b) burned. Other books challenged or banned for profanity include The Great Gatsby and As I Lay Dying.
This category, by the way, also covers blasphemy—because if it offends God, it offends a whole lotta people. The Grapes of Wrath stirred up trouble in North Carolina for “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Now, if it were me, I would skip the trouble and paperwork associated with challenging the shameless sacrilege in this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, and just let God do his smiting (sorry, Steinbeck). But not all of us are rational, and not all of us have much to do on a Monday afternoon.
I should amend the above to include not just graphic sexual content, but also dialogue of a sexual nature, any and all references to reproductive acts, and even the barest, briefest, Disney-approved sensuality.
A Farewell to Arms was banned by school officials in New York, Texas, and South Carolina throughout the ‘80s and labeled a “sex novel” despite the absence of any explicit sex scenes. Apparently it doesn’t bother them, having so much in common with Hitler—who also banned the book back in 1933 after a tantrum. People weren’t quite warming up to Nazi Germany yet, it seemed, so he sent his minions into libraries and bookstores across the country to seize anything that would make for good bonfire material (basically any text that threatened the Nazi ideology). I imagine all the propaganda went down better with a little bratwurst, roasted over the dead words of Ernest Hemingway.
But I digress. We were talking about sex, right? Sexual content was the top reason cited for book challenges over the last decade, probably because sex is the most dangerous, self-destructive weapon available to humanity… or something. Definitely something.
Let me leave you with this delicious morsel: in 1980, Brave New World was banned in classrooms by some individuals with keen and discerning foresight for “making promiscuous sex look like fun.”
The board of education in Strongsville, OH was pressured with a lawsuit in 1974 to ban One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The complaints of the challengers were long and varied, but mostly came down to violence: the book, in their opinion, “glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles, and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.” No one apparently found the lobotomy controversial, but challengers in a Washington high school district did take issue with the book’s endorsement of secular humanism.
Speaking of Lord of the Flies…
Some books are just too sad for any of us to suffer through—at least, according to book challengers. Why agonize over harsh realities—or, you know, fiction—when we can shift our attention to raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens? And, of course, Prince George?
Book challengers at a North Carolina high school in 1981 were apparently willing to overlook the violence depicted in Lord of the Flies, but they did take issue with its negativity. They described the book as “demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal.”
While I try not to make a habit of arguing with people who use words like “inasmuch,” I would like to point out two things to these North Carolinian emotional cowards: 1) Humans are animals—and this wouldn’t come as such a surprise if your mother hadn’t pulled you out of freshman year biology class because the textbook depicted skeletons in the nude, and 2) “Demoralizing”? You know what I find demoralizing? Book banning. Cheese substitutes. The Teletubbies.
And as long as we’re on the subject, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was banned in Alabama for being a “downer.” We are talking about the story of a teenage girl who hid from the Nazis for two years in an attic space in Amsterdam and wrote in her diary, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” You, Alabama, are the downer.
OK, it’s Honesty Hour. Tell the truth: after reading the first Harry Potter, didn’t you pick up a pencil and try out a few spells, just to see if something would happen? Really, really hoping against hope that it would? Because, well, I totally did. And then, just as quickly, I got over my witchcraft “phase” and moved on with my life.
Some people think that fictional witchcraft is so harmful that all references to it must be eliminated—presumably by, er, witchcraft, because man, it is everywhere. The Harry Potter books, which have sold 450 million copies, are actually the most banned books in America. The Lord of the Rings was banned as “satanic” even though Tolkien was a devout Catholic and viewed LOTR as a “fundamentally religious and Christian work.” It has wizards, yes, but no gay wizards. Even Sleeping Beauty has been challenged on counts of witchcraft.
Moral of the story: magic is inherently evil, even if you use it only for good.
8. Unpopular Religious Views
Many a book has been banned because it contained religious notions that “might not coincide with the public view.” Because apparently the public view is… unanimous?
Books in this category include everything from The Da Vinci Code, which discusses controversial issues in Christianity, to The Satanic Verses, which was read as a criticism of Islam and led to assassination attempts (some, tragically, successful) on Salman Rushdie, his publishers, and his translators.
Religious groups, though, are notoriously hard to please. On the one hand, you have the Christians who revere The Chronicles of Narnia because it’s a transparent, totally unsubtle Biblical allegory (seriously, the lion might as well have been named Jeezis), and on the other, you have the Christians who condemn it as an attempt to “animalize” Christ. (Yes, it really has been banned for exactly that reason.) What’s a magical wardrobe enthusiast to do, I ask you?
9. Unpopular Political Views
Fascism was never the cool kid in high school, and there’s nary a good day to be a communist or an anarchist in America. Book banning based on “dangerous” political themes and ideas has been routine for a good long while.
Everything Orwellian (but mostly 1984 and Animal Farm) was banned because “Orwell was a communist.” (He was a democratic socialist.) Challengers in Long Island called Slaughterhouse-Five “anti-American, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” And Of Mice and Men drew criticism in Tennessee because Steinbeck was “very questionable as to his patriotism” and “known to have had an anti-business attitude.” So, case in point.
10. Any Theme Judged Unsuitable for a Particular Age Group
Some books are deemed inappropriate for the targeted age group of readers. The Giver, and its dark(ish) themes, is often challenged as unsuitable for children or young adults, along withThe Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Kite Runner.
The banning of books such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret based on unsuitability for the targeted age group begs the question: when is the best time to confront young adult issues such as puberty and bullying, if not during young adulthood?
The Catcher in the Rye has had the special privilege of being banned for almost all of the reasons listed above. Parents have objected to the book’s “profanity,” “lurid passages about sex,” “immorality,” “excessive violence,” “negativity,” “communist” elements (I kid you not), and depiction of alcohol abuse—criticisms guaranteed to discourage teenage readers up to and including Rod and Todd Flanders from perusing this angsty, much-beloved classic.
And then, of course, there is the occasional book banned for some ludicrous strain of logic:
- In 1985, Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic was challenged at an elementary school in Wisconsin because it “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.”
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz came under fire for depicting women in non-traditional (read: non-submissive) roles, undermining the conventional view that women could not possibly serve as competent fairy tale archetypes.
- A Texas school district banned Moby Dick in 1996 because, bafflingly, it “conflicted with their community values.”
- My Friend Flicka, a children’s horse drama, was challenged because “a female dog was referred to as a ‘bitch’ in the text.”
- And just to leave you flabbergasted: in 2010, Merriam Webster’s dictionary was banned from classrooms in southern California for defining “oral sex.”
So there you have it: ten of the most common reasons cited for banning books, and a few uncommonly silly ones. Notice that not a single one of them referred to “statistics” or “research”—the kind of useful evidence we try to employ, generally speaking, to support our beliefs that ideas or substances are harmful to us or to children. So really, what book banning and censorship are all about—within both small communities and at larger, oft-governmental levels—is personal opinions. And with this in mind, I present to you five (better) reasons not to ban books:
1. You may not like something, but that’s no reason to take it away from everyone.
The ALA’s website reads like an elegant ode to free speech. Along with John Stuart Mill, Noam Chomsky, and Phil Kerby, they quote Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., in Texas v. Johnson:
If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.
The crux of the matter, when it comes to censorship, is that one individual disagreement—or even widespread dispute—over an idea or form of expression does not justify restricting access for others to the same information. Most opponents of book banning understand parental preferences regarding their own child’s reading material, but they refuse to grant them the right to make a decision on behalf of all parents about what is or isn’t appropriate.
With so many book challenges and bans arising every day across the nation, it’s not the children who need safeguarding; it’s the books. Which brings me to reason number two…
2. “Protecting” children from the difficult realities of the world is an exercise in futility—and privilege.
If your child’s first encounter with the word “fuck” is in an eleventh-grade reading assignment, or if their exposure to violence by the age of, say, ten is limited solely to The Hunger Games, I hereby accuse you of invoking supernatural parenting powers.
In a media-flooded world, where information travels exactly as fast as your Twitter feed loads, it would take the shield of Captain America to keep the unpleasant facts of reality at bay. And more important, these bullets of candor don’t injure young people. They simply open up their minds, or even offer them something to identify with. Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has said that
Almost every day, my mailbox is filled with handwritten letters from students—teens and pre-teens—who have read my YA book and loved it. I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book.
Attempts to protect kids from these notions are an occupation of the privileged, for the privileged. Rainbow Rowell was reportedly devastated when Minnesotan school and public library officials un-invited her to speak to local students based on the profanity found in her bestselling book Eleanor & Park. On her blog, she wrote:
When these people call Eleanor & Park an obscene story, I feel like they’re saying that rising above your situation isn’t possible. That if you grow up in an ugly situation, your story isn’t even fit for good people’s ears. That ugly things cancel out everything beautiful.
The parents of children who have not experienced shattering hardships first-hand should be grateful, perhaps—but putting their youngsters’ privilege in context, and raising their awareness of the adversities faced by their peers, has immeasurable value.
3. Books are among our best teachers.
Books teach us history in context. They teach us compassion. They teach us vocabulary, and social skills, and new ways of thinking. Despite our not-so-casual saunter toward innovative, tech-based learning models, research shows that good, old-fashioned reading is still the best way to improve intelligence. Let’s embrace books—not ban them—for being unique and provocative.
You know what some of our other greatest teachers are? Teachers. Why is it that book-challenging parents are so quick to position themselves and their opinions as superior to the education system of their community? A group of parents in California challenged One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 2000, complaining that teachers “can choose the best books, but they keep choosing this garbage over and over again.” Maybe they should reexamine their logic instead of presuming that they occupy the Territory of Truth. Teachers—also known as adults who have trained extensively, and dedicated their careers, to the education of people young and old—keep choosing books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and To Kill a Mockingbird, and Brave New World, OVER AND OVER AGAIN, out of ALL THE BOOKS EVER.
I would like for the challengers to reflect on that. Mull it over, on the couch, with a cup of tea. And then let me know when they arrive at the obvious conclusion.
4. Many of the most frequently banned books are—or go on to become—celebrated classics. And that’s not a coincidence.
The classics all tend to have one thing in common: they say something that humanity needs to hear, and they say it masterfully. In a multiyear exhibition, the Library of Congress named dozens of books that have shaped our heritage, from Catch-22 to Gone with the Wind to The Sound and the Fury, each one a classic of extraordinary merit. By their very nature, classics are apt to confront the social, political, philosophical, and moral issues of their time, for all time, often demonstrating the kind of critical thinking that helps us to progress as a society and as individuals.
Which brings me to the last, and probably best, reason not to ban books:
5. Books really can change the world.
It would take the global population’s fingers—and then some—to count up all the problems in the world today. It can be tempting to drown out their grumbles and their cries with reality TV. But if we never confront our problems, even in name, how will we overcome them? Silencing voices and stifling ideas are no means of growth, or even of shelter. In the ALA’s words, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
Free expression is the weapon of enlightenment—Kafka’s “axe for the frozen sea within us.” Where would we be as a nation—as a planet—without the writers who dared to battle our monsters, from the mundane to the epic, with their mighty pens? The Feminine Mystique was the spark that ignited second-wave feminism, and The Jungle prompted the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The founding of evolutionary biology in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species continues to impact scientific theory across the globe, and the African-American Civil Rights Movement can find roots in Native Son. Never underestimate a blank piece of paper in the right hands, because words are how we live—and for some of us, they’re why we live.
So here’s a final send-off to all the book banners who would challenge independent thought and extinguish its expression: methinks thou doth protest too much.
A writer, reader, and traveler, Jamie Leigh writes a literature review blog at the100greatestbookschallenge.wordpress.com and won the Purdue University Kneale Literary Award in 2008.
Books for burning photo by Mikael Altemark (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABook_burning_(1).jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.