When I was a young girl I discovered, as have many before me, The Twilight Zone. My favorite episode was called The Obsolete Man. It took place in a not too futuresque society, and starred Burgess Merideth as a librarian named Romney Wordsworth and Fritz Weaver as the totalitarian judge who finds him "obsolete". The reason for this obsolecence is that books have been outlawed, therefore removing the need for libraries and librarians. I was only about 9 or 10 when I saw this for the first time and it made a huge impression on me, as did seeing the film version of Fahrenheit 451 around the same time. (The scenes of books being burned in the film are devastating.) By the time I read Ray Bradbury's masterpiece in college, I had developed a great abhorrence for the restriction of access to books, let alone their actual destruction.
I read that book in a class on Utopian and Anti Utopian literature, and after reading such works as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, it wasn't hard to notice that one of the first things any totalitarian society was to restrict of alter books. In college I proudly wore a button proclaiming "I Read Banned Books." In recent years such challenges have become even more common. The target lately has been not so much actual destruction of books, though there have been several cases of Harry Potter being tied to the stake lately, and there was that pastor who wanted to burn the Koran a few years back. Book burnings lead to dramatic headlines and unfortunate comparisons to Nazis , so more recently censorship efforts have focused instead on restricting access, by challenging the presence of books in classrooms and libraries.
It was with all this in mind that the American Library Association (ALA) created Banned Books Week, some 30 years ago. It was chance to remind people of the preciousness of the privilege of reading, and of the importance of keeping a variety of works, and opinions available to everyone. And in honor of the occasion I have compiled a list of some of my favorite banned or challenged books.
Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Censorship is nothing new, of course, and Victor Hugo was well acquainted with it. Tsar Nicolas I banned all of Hugo;s works in the 1850's (thus giving Les Miserables the rare distinction of being banned before it was written) and was on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden books until 1959. Ironically, some 20 years later I would write my senior English paper for my Catholic high school on "The Christian Message in The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The more things change...
Leaves of Grass
New England indecency societies were trying to ban Whitman's poetry before the Civil War began, and people have been objecting to Whitman's frank sexual language and commentary of religion ever since.
A Wrinkle in Time
Somehow I missed out on the Madeline L'Engle books growing up. I read them for the first time a few years ago, and have reread several since, and enjoyed them very much. Besides, one of the chief heroines is named Meg.
I once observed of the banning of this book that "Sarcasm is lost on the Intolerant". Its always fascinating to watch a book become exactly what it warned of. In this case, not only have we seen attempts to ban and restrict books, but also the growing prevalence of television and interactive media that Bradbury warned of (she says, typing on the bluetooth keyboard communicating with the mobile device.) In one particularly ironic case in the 90's, a California middle school expurgated the books by taking magic markers to words they considered obscene.
The Light in the Attic
Widely considered among the best books of poetry ever written, but it has been challenged often as well, in part for encouraging disobedience and messiness.
Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak's classic has been challenged both for being too scary, and for Max's bad attitude and talking back to his mother. Because kids never have temper tantrums.
The Lord of the Rings
Speaking of irony, the devoutly Catholic Tolkien would be appalled to know that his masterpiece has been challenged for detected themes of magic and satanism. As epics go, it may look a little small compared to more recent fantasy book series, but it's still the benchmark by which such works are judged. Plus how many of the others get made into Oscar winning movies?
Harry Potter series
Someday people will look back on J K Rowling's work and realize how much it changed children's literature, that such books could appeal across a wide age range, and that digital era children with their alleged short attention spans could still read really long works if they were engaged by the story. Unless, of course you are one of those people who want the book banned because you think fantasy magic and witchcraft equals Satanism. Or the lady who rewrote the entire series as a fundamentalist adventure.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Perhaps the most beloved of the great American novels of the 20th century, It has also been one of the most challenged, for its adult themes, and use of certain objectionable language and conduct. My personal opinion is that such material is acceptable when it is true to the historic context, or when it's made clear in context that such behaviour is unacceptable. There are compensating lessons to be learned from the integrity and courage of all the positive characters in the book.
In various ways, all of these books have enriched my life. Many are books are I have reread repeatedly. I dipped in and out of several this week, revisiting old friends The world would be a poorer place without them, or without access to them.
How about you. Do you have a favorite banned or challenged book?
For more information please visit the American Library Association's Banned and Challenged Books page.