Apologies for the rare double post, but I have to acknowledge Banned Book Week. Banned Book Week, which started yesterday, celebrates the freedom to read whatever you choose, and have access to all writings despite popularity, perceived vulgarity, or ideology of a given place. It is incredibly important that books are freely accessible despite how unpopular they are, since states and counties often use censorship of their schools and libraries to perpetuate racism, sexism, and homophobia. Some states, including many southern ones, also ban books that do not fit into their narrative about slavery and the history of the Civil War.
More recently, it appears that LGBTQA+ seems to be the biggest banned topic, with eight out of ten of 2019’s top challenged books being challenged for LGBTQA+ content. For obvious reasons, this is immensely problematic, and can do real and actual harm on the children whose libraries and schools are being impacted.
Of course, some schools ban books to avoid controversy and bad publicity. However, they are just as complicit in the stifling of free speech and learning, and should be called out as such. This is particularly true when even higher education institutions (colleges and universities) ban materials, since their students are majoritively adults with the full legal ability to make decisions for themselves about what they want to read.
Some people may ask, is it wrong to ban books with offensive language ala vulgar, racist, and misogynistic words? And the simple answer is yes. Instead of banning books, use them to start a conversation about why those words were used. What is the historical significance? What has changed for the better, and what has stagnated? Words somehow become more powerful when they are taboo, people, most importantly children, need to learn from the stigma instead of being told it is bad with no context.
I was very fortunate growing up in that my school district was immensely progressive. We had Coming Out Day as a real holiday, we celebrated Harvey Milk as an alum, and Banned Books Week was used by our English teachers to make us read banned books and discuss their importance to society and a high school curriculum. I had the pleasure of reading Catch-22 for my Banned Books pick, and I loved it.
If your school or local library entertains challenges to books, get involved. Campaign, do some research, and participate in the conversation.
And for some lighter stuff, here are my favorite banned books:
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
Banned in multiple state and county libraries for language and violence, here is a book that gave me the chills. A dystopian future, and a very real question that still has to be answered: If we could “cure” the incurable, at what lengths are we willing to go?
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Banned in some states and county libraries for vulgar language (misogynistic and racist) and violence. Catch-22 was the book I got to read for banned books week, and it stuck with me. The heartbreaking and sometimes funny realities of being a soldier, this book literally coined the phrase catch-22. The paradox exists still to this day.
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Here is a book that has the dubious pleasure of being one of the few, if only, books banned from the entire United States for a period of time. Riotous and filled with innuendo, Canterbury Tales were banned under the Comstock Law of 1873, which banned “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” publications. A glowing endorsement, in my opinion.
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare
Honestly, so many Shakespeare plays have been banned for a variety of justified and unjustified reasons (I’m looking at you, Merchant of Venice – much love, but genuine questions) but the rationale for banning Twelfth Night is the most ridiculous: It promoted an “alternative lifestyle” because Viola, dressed as a boy, falls in love with Duke Orsino. I wonder how they feel about the overtly homosexual plays…
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
Here is one I am hesitant to discuss, given JK’s own recent controversy and being outed as transphobic. However, I left it on the list because this series affected me in a positive way as a child and made me a more empathetic person, despite the creator. Also, nothing brings me more joy than how much Catholic institutions hate all things witchy, with HP being their major target.
TL/DR, banning books is bad and we should celebrate all pieces of literature and use them as teaching experiences. Go forth and fight the good fight! Tell me your favorite banned books in the comments; I would love to chat!