The Fiery History of Banned Books

Time to talk about banned books again.

I’ve been talking about banned books here for quite some time. Australia does it, USA has an annual banned books week (1, 2, 3, 4), and without fail, the reasons for banning books are stupid.

If there is any one term to summarise why books are banned it is because something in the book makes someone feel uncomfortable.

Don’t particularly feel like discussing historical and contemporary racism in the USA, especially if this discussion highlights current social and personal failings to address the issue? Then ban Huckleberry Finn (or just drop it from the curriculum) because it uses the N-word.

Does discussion of sexuality and sex make you blush or feel inadequate for only knowing one position (facing west and thinking of England)? Then ban books that mention sex. Or nudity. Or sound like they might be.

Is the book you’re reading treat LGBTQI+ people as (shock horror) people? Then quick, ban that thing before anyone has a chance to empathise with a marginalised group and think that treating them poorly shouldn’t be happening.

Since at least 213 BCE, book burnings have been a reaction to the power of the written word. When roasting paper in a giant circle went out of style (at least in the intellectual sphere), the governments would take it upon itself to ban books. However, when we talk about book bannings today, we are usually discussing a specific choice made by individual schools, school districts, and libraries made in response to the moralistic outrage of some group. This, while still hotly-contested and controversial, is still nothing in comparison to the ways books have been removed, censored, and outright destroyed in the past. So on that happy note, let’s … explore how the seemingly innocuous book has survived centuries of the ban hammer.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Banned Books: The Huff Post sequel

It seems that the Huffington Post are stealing my article ideas. Only three days after my article lamenting censorship of books, they do an article on the 2013 Banned Books campaign (September 22-28th).

Now I’m not bitter, in fact, I’m currently covered in orange sherbet. So this follow-up article is to add my support to the Banned Books Campaign and talk about the most frequently challenged books of last year. The annual report of the American Library Association had a lot of interesting findings. They are still having problems with publishers allowing them to loan ebooks (sigh – I bet the same arguments were made when libraries first started lending books), the people using libraries still think that they offer a very important service, they have become technology and research hubs for people, but visit rates have dropped a bit. The really interesting thing for me – because I’m not American, let alone a member of an American library, so all of those points are belly lint to me – was the top ten list of challenged books for 2012.

Here is the Office of Intellectual Freedom’s Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books in 2012:

■ Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey (offensive language, unsuited for age group) TA: Exactly what were parents expecting from a book with this title?

■ The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group) TA: Oh noes, a young adult book that doesn’t treat the readers like kids!!

■ Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group) TA: Another young adult book that deals with real issues, can’t have that!

■ Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James (offensive language, sexually explicit) TA: An erotica book that is sexually explicit….. Words to describe the stupid, fail me.

■ And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (homosexuality, unsuited for age group) TA: Based on real penguins, must be evil!!

■ The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit) TA: Be warned, the characters aren’t white or Christian!!

■ Looking for Alaska, by John Green (offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group) TA: Written by John Green, so clearly the complainants were too stupid to enjoy the book.

■ Scary Stories(series), by Alvin Schwartz (unsuited for age group, violence) TA: The title clearly didn’t give the game away for some sensitive little souls.

■ The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls (offensive language, sexually explicit) TA: Real life is clearly too confronting for some readers.

■ Beloved, by Toni Morrison (sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence) TA: Someone clearly thinks that slavery is a lot more fun than the author portrayed it.

The thing I find striking about this top ten list is that the books are all multiple award winners (except that crud by EL James, which makes up for lack of awards with sales to keep a publishing house afloat). As such, I’d hazard a guess that most of the complaints are coming from people who haven’t read the book, nor let their little darlings near a book. We can only hope that next year people are too busy reading good books to complain about them.