Column: Banned Books Week

Banned_Books_WeekWhile I have my various gripes with the way our government works, there is one part of our founding documents that I am behind with universal support: the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Or something along those lines. It’s a principle that, while it does allow some bloated idiots to gab off at the top of their lungs on news networks, ensures that the development of ideas can continue without intervention and that these ideas can flow out and be discussed to the benefit of all. Plus, as a writer myself, I enjoy that it allows me to say things that would get me kicked out of some other countries or pushed into a tiny little room below the dictator’s palace.

As such, Banned Books Week (September 27-October 3 this year) is an event that has a special place in my heart. Sponsored by the American Library Association, the week-long celebration “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted banning of books across the United States.” In addition to reminding us of prior censorship efforts going back to the 1920s, it also reminds us of the continuing efforts to remove books from libraries on various grounds.

And those efforts are still going on, sadly not dying out with the obscenity trials that allowed “Tropic of Cancer” and “Naked Lunch” to be disseminated in this country free of persecution. The ALA makes such a thing perfectly clear in its graph of reported instances, which reminds me of a road trip gone horribly wrong – cities marked with books that parents and community organizations have tried to pull from the shelves, many of which are award-winners that have been present on the shelves for years.

Out of curiosity this week I scouted out the ALA website to see what has fallen on the roster of banned titles. While the site has a variety of bans relating to contemporary authors I was more interested in the classics, being as that’s the majority of my shelf’s population – I wanted to know what I own that some fire-breathing morality group would consider unfit to have in the same county as a small child.

And the results were pretty impressive. At some point over the last few decades, all of these books which I own and have enjoyed have come up against battles to either take out of schools or even be banned from the country in older times: “The Great Gatsby,” “1984,” “A Brave New World,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “As I Lay Dying,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “Naked Lunch,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “In Cold Blood,” “Heart of Darkness,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Tropic of Cancer” are just the ones at first glance that fell on the challenge list.

A few thoughts flitted through my mind thinking about this: do censors just hate my bookshelf? Is it a prerequisite of a book being a classic for it to be attacked? Should I be investing in a nice locked glass door to cover the shelf? In any case, it offends my sensibilities to the nth degree to see that books like these – which have had a variety of dramatic effects on me over the years – could have come close to being taken out of my hands.

In my life, there hasn’t been a single book that I’d claim has had a negative effect on me – in many cases, it’s expanded my school of thought in very constructive ways by getting them early. If I found “Slaughterhouse-Five” when I was 10 instead of 20, I’m willing to bet its effect would have been positive and allowed for a little more creative thought in my English classes. Then again, I’d also say the same thing about “Naked Lunch” so perhaps they shouldn’t put me on the library board anytime soon.

What I’m saying is that my attitude towards literature tends to be libertarian in nature – I’m all for keeping overdoses of sex and violence to a more mature group, but I believe that there shouldn’t be any restrictions on what books are available in a library. Literature is something that’s made to be explored and hunted down without blockades, something that we go into blind and deserve to have our eyes opened in response. And if a child has questions, they can be dealt with in a reasoned manner – not by mothers who screech up a hissy fit every time a word pops up they fear their beloved’s little virgin ears can’t handle.

So, to honor/celebrate Banned Books Week, I’m going out to rent or buy copies of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” These are books that have been on my reading list for ages but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to, and now seems as good a time as any to indulge. People have put in a lot of effort to give me the right to postpone reading these classics.

And your homework assignment, due on Monday, is to do the same – check out the ALA websites and lists, and get your hands on one or two challenged books. No one’s going take your books away from you any time soon, but a lot of people have fought battles to make sure they can’t. Take a couple hours out of your day and pay them back.

Update: Boing Boing has provided a list of the most challenged titles of 2008, along with a little background on each.

Les Chappell may disagree with what you say, but he will defend to the death your right to print and publish it and have it read by anyone who feels so inclined. Feel free to agree or disagree with him at


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