Every year as we prepare for Banned Books Week at the library, I am thankful for the freedoms we enjoy in our country. I count reading as one of those freedoms. I marvel at some of the titles added to the Banned Books display table and enjoy engaging with patrons when they ask, incredulously, why The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, Fahrenheit 451, and To Kill a Mockingbird, among others, were banned.
Let me start off by clarifying something…although book banning (actually removing a book from a library) does happen (gasp!), oftentimes a book doesn’t get “banned,” but its place on the shelf is “challenged.” The grounds for these challenges typically fall within one of four broad categories: political, religious, sexual or social grounds. Of course, many challenged titles cross over into more than one category. “Offensive,” “vulgar” and “filthy” books, by their very nature, refuse to fit neatly into just one! Books from each of these categories include titles that someone, or a group of someones, judged offensive in their day but the books have since become classics. Very likely, you will recognize many of the books on the banned books list from required reading assignments in high school and college-level literature, history and social studies classes.
Here is a quick summary of the grounds for which books are banned and some representative titles that fall within those categories:
Books challenged for political reasons are considered critical of, embarrassing or challenging to current political authority or belief; or those that paint a political leader or organization in a poor light. Titles include All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and 1984 by George Orwell.
Books challenged for religious reasons include religious texts such as The Bible, The Koran and The Talmud for reasons of translation disputes, blasphemy and immorality. Popular fiction is also targeted. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code for being blasphemous and inflammatory; and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series for blasphemy, wizardry and demonstrating magic as “good” while portraying parents and teachers negatively.
Books challenged for sexual reasons include stories about or the description of sex acts, or use erotic or explicit language referring to sex acts or the insinuation of such acts. Books with related topics such as prostitution, adultery or pregnancy have also been challenged. A few titles that fall within this challenged category are The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.
Books challenged on the basis of social grounds are considered “obscene” because they depict unacceptable ideas, activities or language. They are written on the subjects of race, class, interracial relationships, sexual orientation and drug use. That covers a lot of ground doesn’t it? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne have all been challenged on the basis of social grounds.
Books aren’t the only things that get challenged. Art, film, music and the Internet are chock-full of “dangerous”, unpopular and uncomfortable themes and ideas that garner plenty of attention in the censorship arena. The books mentioned in this article are mainly novels, aimed at adult readers and likely familiar to an American audience. But, there are many children’s books, poetry and nonfiction works (American or otherwise) that have been banned in the United States and around the globe within recent years and centuries past – all for the same reasons previously mentioned.
Sept 22-28 is Banned Books Week. Stop by the library and browse our banned books display table. Ask us why a book was banned. Celebrate intellectual freedom. Read a banned book today.
For the online edition:
To read the American Library Association’s statement on intellectual freedom and the freedom to read, click here.
To see a list of the most frequently challenged books of the 21st century, click here.