Banning Books: An American Tradition Revived | Opinion

Otis Adams

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Photo by Otis Adams

The photo above, taken of one of my very own bookshelves, demonstrates the folly in banning books. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Lee, and Heller were all banned at one time or another along their way to becoming recognized as some of the greatest writers in the history of American literature. Those seeking to ban these authors simply brought their names to new readers through the headlines and helped solidify their places in history.

Maus has now been granted membership to that celebrated corpus of banned and challenged books that were afterward, and frequently beforehand, called classics. Maus is a graphic novel which depicts imprisoned Jews as mice, with mostly human bodies, and the Nazis running the prison camps are cats. Tennessee has banned the teaching of the book in classrooms. The vote to remove the Pulitzer Prize winner was unanimous.

The school district in Tennessee released a statement defending the decision as an effort to reflect the values of the community it serves. They referenced the nudity, profanity, violence, and suicide in the story as why "this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools". Though it was earlier reported that the book would not be available to 8th grade students, the language in the statement implies it will not be available in the high school library either.

The McMinn County Board of Education stresses that they recognize the importance of teaching the Holocaust and have called for books that accomplish this in an age-appropriate way. This does raise the question of how the Holocaust can be honestly taught without nudity, profanity, and violence.

Another question raised is whether banning a book is the most effective way in which to get people to read it. Forbes has reported that sales of the book have skyrocketed by more than 750% since the ban.

The Prestige of Being Banned

Book banning is a form of censorship, though defining it exactly can be murky business. Surely, no one reasonable would argue that Portnoy's Complaint ought to be added to bookshelves in elementary school libraries as it is not age appropriate.

Book banning, however, is a good deal more than matching books of the right reading level with readers. It is when individuals or governments, assuming to hold the moral high ground, forbid books be made available in public libraries, schools, or even in bookstores. There also tends to be some version of fixating on a comparatively unimportant issue, like a drawing of a mouse with a penis, at the expense of needed commentary on an enormously more important issue, like the Holocaust.

Banned books have a tendency to later become classic books, if they were not already recognized as such. Below is a list provided by the American Library Association of a few books which have been both banned and taught in classrooms - occasionally at the same time.

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • Sophie's Choice by William Styron
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Political Trends

Though there are exceptions, books are typically banned and challenged originally by conservatives. The Great Gatsby, though not banned, was challenged by a Baptist college in South Carolina in 1987 because of sexual references in the book. A woman who vowed to bring her Christian beliefs into the decisions she made on a school board in Illinois sparked a controversy over the feminist classic The Awakening in 2006. A coalition of Ohio parents petitioned their school board to ban The Catcher in the Rye because it was "anti-white". The Grapes of Wrath was accused of making use of "vulgar words" while The Lord of the Flies' sin was implying "that man is little more than an animal".

A Republican legislator in Texas recently compiled a list of 850 books which he felt held the potential of causing students to feel "discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress". The Dallas Morning News perused the first hundred books on his list and found that 97 were written by women, minorities, and gay authors. A school district in San Antonio, without any public discussion or debate, removed 400 of these books from their shelves.

Other Republican lawmakers are focused on regulating books dealing with race and sexuality.

Also a trend, however, is that modern book challenges and bans are being brought by liberals. In some cases, books spent their early lives being banned by conservatives for challenging racial issues of the day, then, in their old age, began being challenged by liberals who felt those issues were not handled gently enough, or that an authentic picture of the past may distress modern students.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a favored target of liberal lawmakers, largely for its use of racial slurs - as it depicts a time in which these slurs were commonly used.

There are also curiosities on banned book lists. One may ponder the perplexing question of how Jack London's story about a man and his dog, The Call of the Wild, managed to be banned in Italy and Yugoslavia in 1929 and burned in Nazi fires in 1933. Perhaps they were cat people.

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Author of Lavatory Reader #1: This Road, now available on Amazon. Otis Adams is the author of three books and has won two dozen awards for his screenplays and short fiction. He writes regularly on Medium.com and can be contacted at pithbooks@gmail.com.

Columbia, MO
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