Sunday marked the start of Banned Books Week 2017. This annual event, sponsored by the American Library Association and an array of other groups, is designed to increase awareness about attempts to restrict access to books (and, by extension, ideas) in America.
Because so many censorship attempts are spurred by far-right religious groups, Americans United has had an interest in this issue for a long time. In 1956, Paul Blanshard, a researcher who worked with AU, published The Right To Read, a study of religion-based censorship in America. I stumbled upon a copy in a used bookstore a few years ago and was surprised to read about how common censorship was in Blanshard’s time.
Blanshard discussed the great era of “vice suppression” in the United States that began in the 1920s and didn’t die down until the ’60s. Conservative religious groups like the Watch and Ward Society and the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice worked hand in hand with government officials to suppress books they found objectionable.
You’ve heard the phrase “Banned in Boston”? That cliché arose because books, magazines and stage plays used to get banned in Boston – often at the behest of the region’s powerful Catholic clergy. H.L. Mencken grew so weary of the city’s puritanical elite deciding what people could read that in 1926 he provoked a court challenge by personally selling copies of his American Mercury magazine there. Beantown religious leaders had banned the issue because it contained a story about a prostitute. Mencken was arrested, and the incident captured headlines all over America. The acerbic writer was acquitted.
Annoy the Religious Right: Read a banned book!
That didn’t slow down the censors much. They often targeted works that went on to be considered classics. Among them are John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Oil! By Upton Sinclair, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and, in an act of supreme irony, 1984 by George Orwell.
The unfortunate trend continues today. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been assailed for promoting witchcraft, and young adult novels that dare to touch on topics such as human sexuality or that have plots that urge tolerance of LGBTQ people are often singled out. Books for kids deemed gay-friendly are under constant attack. The fuss over Heather Has Two Mommies was just the start. Today, titles such as And Tango Makes Three and King and King are in the crosshairs.
People sometimes argue that censorship isn’t really a problem today because not all of these challenges to books succeed, and the titles remain available in libraries, in bookstores and online. That may be true, but we should not allow it make us complacent. Attacks on books are really attacks on the freedom to learn, the right to question and the ability to challenge an accepted view or ruling orthodoxy. We have wide availability to books today only because we beat the censors back 50 years ago. We must never allow them to secure a beachhead again.
Want to fight back? There’s an easy way: Read a banned book.