Yesterday marked the start of Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Booksellers Association and other groups.
Books get banned for lots of reasons. Claims that certain tomes are “blasphemous” or offensive to religion are common. In the summer of 2011, the school board in Republic, Mo., made national headlines after it voted to ban two books – one of them Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five, because they were deemed “contrary to the Bible.”
This is an old story. During the height of “vice suppression” in the early part of the 20th century, conservative clerics had the power to make certain books very difficult to find in some areas. Targeted titles included Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Sherwood’s Anderson’s Dark Laughter and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Censorship was a problem even in “sophisticated” urban areas. You’ve heard the phrase “Banned in Boston”? It originated because they used to ban books in Boston. The city’s Roman Catholic hierarchy worked in concert with infamous censor Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (which, despite its name, did not limit itself to New York) to pressure libraries, book stores and newsstands to remove “offensive” material. Often all it took was one phone call.
It took a lot of brave people working through the courts to change things. Eventually, the self-appointed guardians of public morality lost their grip on what we can read and see. These days, you can pretty much get your hands on whatever you want to read. (Sites likes Amazon and Bookfinder have made it even easier.)
But that doesn’t mean censorship battles are a thing of the past. As the incident in Republic illustrates, the action has moved to the public schools. Despite a 1982 Supreme Court ruling stating that books cannot be removed from school libraries just because someone decides they are “anti-Christian,” the battle for the right to read goes on.
The popularity of the “Harry Potter” books sparked a new round of censorship battles, and some tomes – I’m talking to you J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye – seem to always be on the “most censored” list. We have to remain vigilant.
What can you do to observe Banned Books Week? Stand up to the censors, for one. But another popular tactic is to read a banned book this week. I’m partial to the classics, so here’s list of frequently censored tomes from which to choose.
There’s some excellent reading on this list. When you read one of these books, you get to enjoy a great yarn and annoy the Puritanical censors of the Religious Right.
I call that a win-win!