This week is Banned Books Week, so it’s an excellent time to read something forbidden. Is there a better advertisement for any book than to ban it? I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance because I heard there was some controversy about it, and all I remember now is that there was a lot of ado about the true meaning of “quality” and some mechanical tips. I don’t recall anything scandalous, and at the time, I felt like I’d been tricked into reading a fairly boring book. I’m fascinated by the reasons sometimes cited for censorship. Maybe it is a sign that I am a disturbed and deviant individual, but people can get upset over things I would never have anticipated.
I pulled out my copy of 100 Banned Books and read up on the censorship of The Scarlet Letter, which has been challenged several times because the story involves adultery, but one parent objected to its use of foul language and four-letter words. I spent a full minute trying to figure out what that might refer to before reading the next sentence, which confirmed that no such words appear in the book. The librarian busted the parent, which is awesome. Still, I wonder why a parent tries to ban a book they’ve never read, and all the reasons I can come up with are a little terrifying.
In 1977, one school district temporarily banned To Kill a Mockingbird because the novel contained the words “damn” and “whore lady. The book has obviously faced censorship for racial reasons, but I found the 1977 reason so goofy that it’s almost quaint. As I type this, I’m thinking of ways to work “whore lady” into conversation.
I also read up on the challenges to Black Like Me, which is the true story of a white man who dyed his skin and for a time lived as a black man in the Deep South in 1959. I must admit that when I heard about the book, I was uncomfortable with the idea of it. First of all, it sounded a little too much like blackface, and second, while I felt that he certainly approximated the experience of living life as a black man, I still wrestle with whether or not that experience is the same as actually being a person of color. Some of my fears were assuaged when I read the book (which is the reason to investigate further Missouri Parent Who Didn’t Actually Read Hawthorne), but none of those things were necessarily factors in the book being challenged. According to 100 Banned Books, in one case “the material was placed on a closed shelf when a parent challenged the book on the grounds that it was obscene and vulgar and ‘because of black people being in the book.’” By the way, that happened in 1982. There was at least one other mention of a person who cited an objection to reading about black people, also in 1982.
In perusing a lot of lists this weekend, I found the usual suspects, but there are always a few surprises. I was floored to find Where’s Waldo on the list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged books of 1990-2000. And, if I’m being honest, that’s probably where the list started to really freak me out. That list had a lot of kids books on it, which really bothers me because if kids in this day and age want to read just about anything I think they should be encouraged. When I taught writing classes, I could tell which kids didn’t read much because they didn’t have a good understanding of the language. They weren’t familiar with common idioms, and in the worst cases, they didn’t know how to properly use quotation marks. I don’t mean they struggled to cite a research paper; I mean they couldn’t properly punctuate a sentence with dialogue in it. I’m not worried that kids might read Judy Blume or The Outsiders, but I’m really concerned that kids might read nothing at all.
That’s one of the best reasons I can think of to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. I had classmates who didn’t read most of what our English teachers assigned. Once in my high school English class, we were supposed to have read The Pearl, and the teacher mentioned that every year when she gave a test on it, and students came to the question about the baby dying, someone would freak out and say, “The baby died?!” And when she finished telling that story, someone in the back of the class said, “Wait a minute! The baby died?” And I remember a girl that I’m pretty sure didn’t read anything else junior year who stayed up late to finish that book because she wanted to see how it turned out. It’s a good book. I understand that there are things that make people uncomfortable, and those things are worth talking about. But it’s a great piece of literature, and even if some people choose not to read it, they shouldn’t keep me from doing so.
If you’re interested in checking out a banned book, here are some of my favorites: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Animal Farm, The Bell Jar, The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, In Cold Blood, Lolita, To Kill a Mockingbird, Where the Sidewalk Ends.
If you’re interested in reading more about the censorship history of certain books, I recommend 100 Banned Books by Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald, and Dawn B. Sova. The book is divided up based on reasons for censorship, and each entry contains a brief summary of the book in question as well as a detailed discussion of attempts to challenge or ban the books. There’s also a follow up I haven’t checked out yet called 120 Banned Books. I’m guessing it’s like the original with 20% more vulgarity. Hooray!
It’s a great time to celebrate our freedom to read. Feel free to recommend your favorite banned books below.