Banned Books Week is held annually in September to celebrate our freedom to read the books we choose. It is sponsored by numerous organizations, including the American Library Association, Association of University Presses and People for the American Way Foundation. The celebration this year is Sept. 18-24, and the theme is “Books Unite Us — Censorship Divides Us.” As our nation struggles with so much divisiveness, this may be a good time to look at the history of book banning in our country.
The vast majority of books deal with mankind and the human condition, and reading is a safe and incredibly efficient way to explore and understand their complexities. Books provide a shared experience because they reveal common truths about ourselves, our fears and our suppressed desires. Through that shared experience, we not only develop a better understanding of ourselves but also empathy and respect for others.
Those who attempt to ban certain books are subverting these humanizing and ennobling benefits of literature. Many are motivated by personal or political agendas. When I first read about book burning in Nazi Germany, I was naïve to think this could not happen in the United States, but it did. During most of my life, I never heard much about the banning of books, and what I thought was in our long-ago history is now very much in our present.
Perhaps the first known book banned in America was Thomas Morton’s “New English Canaan,’’ published in 1637. It was a harsh critique of the Puritan customs, and, of course, the settlers were not happy with its criticism of their new colony. Book banning by religious groups was not uncommon as Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church and the Church of England.
Even our own government has been complicit in book banning. In the late 1800s, Anthony Comstock, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, used the U.S. Postal Service to limit the circulation of obscene literature and even destroyed books.
In the 1950s and 1960s, during a time of great change in our society, we saw a spike in the “ban the books” movement. The protests and counterprotests resulted in confrontations over books like J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,’’ Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird’’ and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’’ For sure, if there was ever talk of books we kids should not be reading, it just made us want to read it more. For me and my friends, it was “Peyton Place,’’ and you can bet we figured out how to get a copy.
Today we see a new push to ban books from schools. Parents especially are challenging books in unprecedented numbers. Often, all it takes is one parent challenging a book to have it removed from the school shelves.
Some are genuinely concerned about books that address themes or topics unsuitable for their child, but they are often egged on by groups with an agenda. This is especially true for books that address racial themes, political views, religious questions or different lifestyles. It is true that some books are challenged simply for “risqué” content and there may be legitimate reasons for parents and teachers to guide children toward reading more age-appropriate books. But banning books is not the answer.
Books help us gain the knowledge we need to grow and develop. This is also true for children, who may become interested in books that relate to where they are in life. Sometimes books are the best way they can learn about some of the harsh realities of life. They may read about a character who is going through the same thing they have experienced such as grief, divorce, bullying, prejudice or coming to terms with sexual orientation. Reading about complex issues such as these helps kids consider moral issues and build empathy for others. For young children, we know that reading fairy tales is a safe way to confront scary things in life.
When people insist on banning books, they are limiting other people’s experiences and growth. What someone may not want their child to read may be just what another needs. The best way to support your own children’s reading experience is to read the book yourself. Discuss it with them, what about the subject interests them, and you may find out your children know and understand more than you realized.
The books below are a few of the most banned books of all time. I am not doing a review of the books, but rather listing the most common reasons protest groups have given for challenging or banning the book. As is often the case, these books have great literary merit and are considered classics.
“Fahrenheit 451’’ by Ray Bradbury was challenged in a Texas school district because of “discussion of being drunk, smoking cigarettes, violence, ‘dirty talk,’ references to the Bible, and using God’s name in vain.” What irony that they would try to ban a book that deals with book-banning in a dystopian future. The book remains a classic and a vital part of secondary education curricula.
“The Grapes of Wrath’’ by John Steinbeck was often banned because it used vulgar words. The Moore County school system tried to ban it because of a “blasphemous phrase,” and a St. Louis public library held an actual book burning.
“1984’’ by George Orwell is one of the most banned books of all time. The book was banned because it was thought to promote communism when in fact it was written to warn readers of its dangers. The people making the most fuss had not even read the book.
“The Catcher in the Rye’’ by J.D. Salinger has been challenged and banned in many school districts over the years because of sexual content, profanity and blasphemy. In most cases, it has survived the challenge and remains an important part of school curricula.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’’ by Mark Twain was first banned in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1885 and berated as “trash and suitable only for the slums.” In more recent times, it has been banned or challenged because of its alleged racist content.
“To Kill a Mockingbird’’ by Harper Lee is perhaps one of the greatest novels of all time, but it has been challenged and banned because of strong language, discussion of sexuality and rape, and use of racial epithets. In 2019, it was challenged because it “makes people uncomfortable.”
“The Color Purple’’ by Alice Walker has been challenged over the years by school districts because of inappropriate language, graphic sexual scenes and its negative image of Black men.
“Ulysses’’ by James Joyce was burned in the U.S. (1918), Ireland (1922), Canada (1922), and England (1923) and banned in England (1929). It was considered obscene because of its sexually explicit content.
“The Lord of the Flies’’ by William Golding is considered one of the most important books of the 20th century. It was challenged in a North Carolina high school because it implies that man is little more than an animal.
“Beloved’’ by Toni Morrison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about antebellum slavery, but it was challenged in a school district because it depicted “bestiality, racism and sex.” In Virginia in 2021, one of the candidates for governor cited the book as an example of those that should be banned.
“The Lord of the Rings’’ by J.R.R. Tolkien was burned in one New Mexico community along with other Tolkien books because it deals with magic and was thought to be satanic.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls’’ by Ernest Hemingway was declared non-mailable by the Post Office in 1940 because it contained references to Marxism and was felt to be pro-communist.
If you are concerned about the appropriateness of a book for your child or in the schools, it is particularly important that you first read the book. Do not base your actions on a few quotes taken out of context from the book, or simply because of fear-mongering by groups with an agenda. And remember, this is a free country and we should always try to respect the rights of others who may not share our viewpoint. Reading just might be the best way for all of us to learn how to do that.