Ever since books have been printed and distributed, there have been groups of people eager to set fire to them, ban them, and generally make sure certain titles (and the exciting ideas contained therein!) never see the light of day. Book burnings were a regular event in university towns across Nazi Germany in the 1930s, where student unions set ablaze any titles they deemed “Un-German” or subversive. Over the decades, there have been plenty of attempts to censor and ban here in the United States, as well.
Banned Books Week kicks off Sept. 27 and celebrates the freedom to read, with a special highlight on current and past attempts to censor certain tomes in schools and libraries.
“It’s funny how today’s subversive is tomorrow’s classic, isn’t it?” said Lynn Lobash, The New York Public Library’s Associate Director of Reader Services.
“When books are censored, it’s usually because they contain issues or characters that challenge present-day norms and make people uncomfortable. Basically, it’s out of fear …That’s exactly why banning books is in direct contrast to a public library’s mission: we believe knowledge is power, and that an important benefit of reading is gaining new perspectives and a better understanding of our world. Additionally, the people represented in the pages of those censored books can read them and be assured that they’re not alone. That is so critical. In many cases over history, those books were their only outlet.”
While not an exhaustive list by any means, here’s a list posted on the American Library Association (ALA) website of “Banned and Challenged Classics” that have offended and angered people over the years.
“The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger
This novel — wherein depressed prep schooler Holden Caulfield details all the things he hates and has been let down by — has been consistently controversial since it was first published in 1951. The Linton-Stockton Indiana high school in 1988 claimed it was “blasphemous and undermines morality,” and it was challenged at Jamaica High School in Sidell, Ill., in 1992 for containing profanities, depicting premarital sex, alcohol abuse and prostitution.
“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck
The Steinbeck novella about two migrant ranch workers came out in 1937 and has been challenged by school boards ever since for offensive language, racial slurs and, according to a coalition of clergy in Mobile, Ala., “morbid and depressing themes.” Somewhat hilariously, the book was also been taken to task due to Steinbeck’s noted “anti-business attitude,” and was thus nixed as a summer youth program reading assignment in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1989.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
This 1960 novel, long revered as a classic for its depiction of racism and justice in a small Southern town, has been challenged and banned for decades with accusations of racial epithets, racism masquerading as literature, and for words such as “damn” and “whore lady.” (Eden Valley, Minn., 1977).
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
The 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner and coming of age novel about a young black woman named Celie deals with heavy issues like rape and incest — and has been consistently challenged for graphic sexual content and violence. In some towns, such as the Ferguson High School Library in Newport News, Va., the book can only be checked out with parental approval.
“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov
The 1955 novel by the Russian-American novelist has never failed to scandalize, as it revolves around a sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old girl. Over the years, the novel has been banned for obscenity in France, Argentina, England and New Zealand.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce
People all over the world have taken exception to this 1922 modernist novel, not because of its length (730 pages!) or the fact that it’s a notoriously difficult read (long run-on sentences without punctuation) but due to charges of obscenity. It has been burned in the United States, England, Canada and Ireland.
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about slavery, published in 1987, is no easy read; that’s what makes it so incredible. It has been consistently challenged at schools across the country for “inappropriate” topics such as slavery and racism.
“Animal Farm” by George Orwell
George Orwell’s 1945 classic, a barnyard allegory that is critical of communism, has been banned from many schools worldwide for problematic ideas. In 1963, the John Birch Society took issue with the words “the masses will revolt,” while others claimed Orwell was a communist. The book was banned by schools in the United Arab Emirates in 2002 on the grounds that it contained pictures of alcoholic drinks and pigs.
“Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut
The classic 1969 book, which centers on the firebombing of Dresden, has been challenged in many communities, but was burned in Drake, ND. Complaints include foul language, sexual content, and violence.
“Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie
This novel begins with a bang — literally, a terrorist bomb going off on a London-bound airplane — and also packed a punch upon its 1988 publication; Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, calling on Muslims to execute the author and anyone else involved in the book’s publication.