One of the great pleasures of the autumnal season for me is Banned Books Week— Sept. 25 to Oct. 2 this year— sponsored by the American
Library Association and various other organizations that doggedly fight against that All-American itch to censor.
Censorship is a custom that seems to belong in the time of Cotton Mather but is right at home in the age of Glenn Beck. Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has the distinction of being banned by someone or other for the entire 125 years that it’s been in print. There were even objections to Huck before the book was printed. If that does not make it some sort of classic, I cannot say what would.
You don’t hear much about anyone actually trying to burn a witch these days (not that I want to give anyone any ideas) but book banning is older than the country. It has followed us from the time of the simple hand-set printing press on to the information superhighway and the era of the Internet.
Americans (or at least a good number of them) love to curl up with a good book and then try to make sure no one else gets to curl up with that book. Although fundamentalists of all stripes tend to be in the vanguard, they are not the only ones who wish to censor. Persons of all colors like to ban books. And of all creeds, too. It appeals to homegrown fascists and it appeals to feminists. It appeals to the right wing, the left wing and the wing nut.
Book banners all have one thing in common. They are certain that they are right. (It also helps immensely if you believe that you are doing the work of the Lord, too. “God wants this book banned. HE told me so.”)
Every year the nation’s librarians monitor the banning of books from sea to shining sea. Their research shows us that we are not as enlightened as we like to think, and that book banning knows no geographic boundaries. It is as possible in an upscale Chicago suburb as in the wilds of Arkansas.
Although many of the most frequently banned books tend to be juvenile titles that many older readers will not be familiar with, according to the ALA, some well-intentioned soul in this country has banned the work of Chaucer, Aristophanes, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe, Boccaccio, Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Harper Lee, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. The list goes on and on.
The Radcliffe Publishing Course created a list of the 100 most important novels of the past century. Nearly half of those— 42 of the 100— have been banned somewhere, including such sinful works as “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Sun Also Rises” and “All the King’s Men.” I am glad to report that although they no longer lead the field, these distinguished American writers continue to be among the banned.
Book banning is plainly a grave assault on the First Amendment. In other words, it is unconstitutional. A person who is capable of such a thing is truly a danger. We worry about terrorism abroad, but what of terrorism here? A man capable of banning books might be as dangerous as a man with a box cutter.
A cursory glance at current titles that are often banned would indicate that S-E-X is the culprit, especially gay sex. “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” was one of the most banned books in the country last year. I have not read it but I’m going to guess that Uncle Bobby was not marrying the girl next door. “God made Adam and Eve NOT Adam and Steve,” as I heard a preacher once froth. Sexuality, says the ALA, is the great boogeyman. Any hint of it makes a book liable to banning. Satanism, witchcraft and the occult are often cited, too. Harry Potter is giving Huck Finn a run for his money nowadays in the banned book competition.
Between 1990 and 2000 there were 6,364 challenges issued against books in America, according to the ALA. But the grim news is that for each challenge reported there may be as many as four or five that go unreported.
Lists of banned books are baffling. Somehow Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” and “The New Joy of Gay Sex” can both wind up on the same list. “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Heather Has Two Mommies.” “Where’s Waldo?” (also for kids) and “American Psycho” (not for kids).
The scope of this selection is alarming. It seems at a casual glance the work of pranksters, a hoax, a kind of Saturday Night Live sketch, fodder for The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. But it’s not.
Naturally, George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” novels pondering what a totalitarian future might hold, are often cited on banned books lists. Orwell and Huxley would have liked that.