It instantly became the most fascinating of book titles when I learned what it meant. Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which book pages burn. The back cover hinted at mysterious “firemen,” strapped with fuel tanks and hoses, who paraded through a not-distant-enough future, incinerating the homes of anyone caught reading.
Far from the small Midwest town of my youth, I had discovered the pungent aroma and endless bargain treasures of used book stores in Seattle, Washington. And here, on a rainy, autumn day, playing hooky from work, I came upon my first “Banned Books Week” display. Some lucky staff member had the job of writing on small cards why each book on display had been challenged or banned by some school board or parents’ group. The reasons were fascinating–and often silly.
Ray Bradbury‘s dystopian novel, written at a time when he feared censorship and book burning during the Congressional hearings of Joseph McCarthy, was pulled from shelves for language found “blasphemous.” I chuckled subversively as I read the cards and came to the quick conclusion that any great author who had spoken truth to the world had likely heard the enraged calls of book banners. It had become a literary badge of courage (Yes, the Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane was banned a year after I graduated High School).
I made a light-hearted pledge that day, 25 years ago, to buy a banned book each year, during the special week at the end of September. It was a good pledge that has enriched my book collection deeply. In college, when I was first assigned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I instead watched an old black and white video version, starring Mickey Rooney. All the darkness was drained out of the story by Hollywood, which wanted to avoid the taboos of Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Jim, Huck’s black partner and a source of much controversy, wasn’t even in the film. I bombed the exam.
I now own four copies of Huck Finn and I’ve read it numerous times. I relish the dark satire of the book, the brutally honest portrait of America’s language and place, Huck’s complete disregard for authority, and Twain’s vicious dissection of America’s sins 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 the dark places where Twain took his readers, protestors would block the front doors of 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 casual hatred. That is why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the book that Ernest Hemingway called the beginning of all American Literature, is also 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, “Remember when you told that joke about the nigger, the kike and spic?” All banned books do that. 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, regardless of its immense popularity among children, who knew that Maurice Sendak had captured exactly what was going on in their own heads. 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 banned 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.” Talk about missing the forest for the trees.
- 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 arguments for war.
- Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Attempts to ban this book seem to mirror the novel’s plot of time repeating itself. Vonnegut’s novel draws a special kind of rhetoric. The book 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. With all due respect to Kurt and his reviewer, it’s a good book, but not “psychotic” good.
- 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 would say a librarian who locks books away from children is “embracing a poor library policy.”
- To Kill a Mocking Bird, by Harper Lee, banned in Texas because it “conflicted with the values of the community.” This should be put into context. That phrase comes up a lot in Texas. It’s a boilerplate phrase that Texas school boards and libraries use when a book gives them the willies but they can’t come up with a good reason why. Censorship of this book defies logic. Some educators call this Pulitzer-prize winning novel one of the greatest texts teens can study. Others have called it a degrading, profane and racist work that “promotes white supremacy.” Huh?
- 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 raised teen reading in the U.S., taught that love is the most powerful magic and that it is always right to stand up for your friends. But they are also the work of SATAN! Well, that is if you pay attention to conservative Christians, who have tried and still try to ban the wickedly popular series of book. According to them they are filled with sorcery and witchcraft inappropriate for Christian readers. I once told a co-worker that I was reading Harry Potter to my kids. She admonished me that I shouldn’t do that. I responded, “Oh, have you read them?” She said, “Of course not!” I said, “You are like my children, you don’t like vegetables, even if you haven’t tasted them.”
- The Grapes of Wrath, by 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, a masterful novel, written under the influence of LSD. Somehow Kesey pulls off a narrator in 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 THIS MONTH! One of the greatest books of the 20th century, it won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction. It is a difficult look at racial identity, black nationalism and Marxism. Some school boards were intimidated by of the book. Could it be that they just didn’t like it that this black man was so damn smart?
- 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 read as he heads toward his teenage nervous breakdown. One of my proudest moments as a father was the day I gave my beat-up copy to my son Joe (there are only beat up copies of Catcher) and he came back nailing his interpretation that Holden was criticizing in all the phonies what he feared in himself– the death of innocence. It seemed cliché that the day I gave my son Salinger’s book a librarian told him he shouldn’t be reading it. He came home grinning with the wild glee of a newborn subversive.
It seems that literary greatness means striking fear in hearts in some corner of the world, whether it’s 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 (the dreaded “conflict with community values”). Hemingway’s books have been banned, so have Faulkner’s. Toni Morrison has won the Pulitzer, the Nobel, and yet her novel’s, throbbing with life and color and pain, draw parental complaints like critical praise. The Call of the Wild, which I had read four times before I entered high school has been challenged because of its dark tone and bloody violence and banned because of the socialist politics of its author.
Gone With the Wind, not on my reading list, is often cited as one of the most beloved novels of all time, but it was banned in California because of the immoral behavior of it’s heroine. I find it hilarious that people from a state that a large chunk of the South would like to expel from the union because of immorality, are banning a book because its southern heroine is immoral. God bless America.
Logic seldom enters into the argument for banning books (or for the popularity of Gone With the Wind). Conservative Christian 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 has bad words in it. The Bible, the biggest selling book of all time, has been banned because the Old Testament reads like torture porn.
It’s Banned Books week again. Time to buy another book. Shall I go with Leaves of Grass written by Walt Whitman in 1856, or Tango Makes Three, the true story of two male penguins who hatched an egg and raised a baby penguin together? You guessed it, banned because of homosexuality.
I plan on keeping my Banned Books week 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”?). But in the past two years, the Hunger Games (sex and violence), The Kite Runner (homosexuality), and the Chocolate War (nudity, sex, offensive language), which was being banned when I was a kid, were atop the lists of books being pulled from shelves. And Judy Blume is about due for a new book.
I don’t think I’ll be running out of new reading material anytime soon.
Check out the American Library Association’s Banned Books Web site: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks