The back cover hinted at dark “firemen,” strapped with fuel tanks, who march through a not-distant-enough future, incinerating the homes of anyone caught reading.
I discovered the pungent aroma and endless treasures of Seattle’s used book stores. Here, on a rainy, autumn day, playing hooky from work, I came upon my first “Banned Books Week” display. Some lucky staff member had joyously written on small cards why each book on display had been challenged or banned by school board and parents’ groups. The reasons were fascinating–and often silly.
I chuckled as I read the cards,concluding that any great author who spoke truth had been challenged or banned. of. It’s a literary badge of courage (Yes, the Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane was banned a year after I graduated High School).
Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, written at a time when he feared censorship during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Congressional which hunt, was labeled “blasphemous.”
I pledged that day to buy a banned book each year during the last week of September. My book collection benefitted. In college, when i was hard at work trying to find the easiest way to pass classes, I was first assigned “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Instead, I slacked in front of an old black and white adaptation of Mark Twain’s masterpiece, starring Mickey Rooney. It was a light-hearted romp, which bleached the story of the taboos Twain trampled. I bombed the exam.
I now own four copies of Huck Finn and I’ve read it four times. I relish the dark satire of the book, its use of language and dialect and and place. Twain’s book was a vicious dissection of America’s vulgar view of race and class. It is no easy read, and there’s a reason no one has ever made a film adaptation that’s worth a damn. If a director successfully went to Finn’s dark places, protestors would block theaters. Huckleberry Finn is not a light-hearted road trip. It saw America before America was quite ready to see itself. Something filled with wonder and quiet beauty and rustic humor, yet so dark and mean and filled with hatred and scoundrels. And by extension, hilarious.
Ernest Hemingway called “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” the beginning of all American Literature.
It also is one of the most banned books in American history — because it scares the hell out of us. It laughs at us. It sits down in the middle of a crowded room and says, we’re all kind of full of shit. ”
All great books do that; they challenges what we perceive as truth.
Judy Blume’s books are constantly targeted for talking about the lives of teenagers exactly as they are, not as their parents like to think they are.
Parents tried to ban “Where the Wild Things Are” because of it’s dark imagery, though it connected with exactly what was going on in a child’s head.
Dee Brown’s book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West,” was banned in Wisconsin in 1974 because it might be “polemical.” A school official said: “If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it.”
I guess I should thank book banners. Since I made my vow, I’ve added the following books to my collection:
- “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, which objectors called a “how-to-manuel” for crime and decried because of “anti-white statements.”
- “Catch 22,”by Joseph Heller, one of my favorite books, banned for indecent language. This masterpiece of absurdist humor is an almost perfect deconstruction of war.
- “Slaughterhouse Five,”by Kurt Vonnegut. Attempts to ban this book, based on the authors experience as a soldier in World War II at the firebombing of Dresden, mirror the novel’s message about the cold and casual loss of humanity in war and how history repeats itself. The novel has drawn a special kind of rhetoric. It has been challenged 18 times since it was published, and a Michigan judge called it “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” That quote was exactly why I bought my first tattered copy in 1988. “So it goes”
- “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” by Roald Dahl: a Colorado library placed this book in a locked reference collection because the tale of Charlie Bucket and his tour of a candy factory embraced a “poor philosophy of life.” I think a librarian who locks books away from children “embraces a poor library policy.”
- “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” by Harper Lee, banned in Texas because it “conflicted with the values of the community.” That euphemism comes up a lot in Texas. It’s a boilerplate that school boards and libraries use when a book gives them the willies, but they don’t know why.. Censorship of this book defies logic. Some educators call this Pulitzer-prize winning novel one of the greatest texts that teens can study. Others have called it a degrading, profane and racist work that “promotes white supremacy.”
- “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank ran afoul of a Virgina school district in 2010 because of sexual content. In 1983 an Alabama school board attempted to challenge the book because it was “a real downer.”
- The Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling, which single-handedly ignited teen reading all over the world, showed that love is the most powerful magic and that it is always right to stand up for your friends. But, according to some conservatives Christians, they are witchcraft, sorcery, works of Satan.
- “The Grapes of Wrath,”by Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck: obscenity, sexual references. Ironically, California, the setting of the novel, is the first place it was banned. It has also been banned in Ireland, and a group of booksellers were taken to court in Turkey for “spreading propaganda.”
- “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” by Ken Kesey (this week’s purchase to replace the one I gave away), a masterful novel, which Kesey wrote under the influence of LSD. Somehow. Kesey created the Chief who is insane, but still tells a lucid story. Electrifying. Not for everyone, though, obviously.
- “The Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison, banned in North Carolina. One of the greatest books of the 20th century, it won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction. It is an intelligent and stirring look at racial identity, black nationalism and Marxism. Some school boards were intimidated by the book.
- And of course, “Catcher in the Rye,”by J.D. Salinger, the standard-bearer of banned books. Foul mouthed, rebellious, Holden Caulfield is such a depressing joy to follow him toward a teenage nervous breakdown. One of my proudest moments as a father was when I gave my beat-up copy to my then 5th-grade son Joe. He took it to school and got scolded for having it. A couple of days later, finished it offered a prescient interpretation. “Holden was criticizing all the phonies, but he was a phony.”
Literary greatness is dangerous. The sultry pleasure of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (sex) or the irreverent nonsense of Shel Silverstein’s Light in the Attic (disrespect) or the high seas adventure of Moby Dick (“conflict with community values”).
Hemingway’s books have been banned, so have Faulkner’s. Toni Morrison,who won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, heard calls for bans. Call of the Wild,” by Jack London, which I read four times before high school, has been challenged because of its dark tone, bloody violence and the socialist politics of its author.
“Gone With the Wind,” often cited as one of the most beloved novels of all time, was banned in California because of the immoral behavior of it’s heroine, (not the racism).
Logic seldom enters into banning books (or the popularity of Gone With the Wind). Conservative Conservatives once banned Huckleberry Finn because it taught disrespect for authority. Today liberals want to ban it because it is racist. The dictionary has been banned because it contains bad words. The Bible, because the Old Testament is filled with torture porn.
I plan on keeping my pledge. I’ll always have the classics. Little House on the Prairie (view of Native Americans), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (negativism), or the Scarlet Letter (Can I have a “conflicts with community values”?). However, the Hunger Games (sex and violence), The Kite Runner (homosexuality), and the Chocolate War (nudity, sex, offensive language), are atop the lists of books being pulled from shelves.
I don’t think I’ll run out of new books anytime soon.