Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
On Banning Books
September 25, 1998
CAUTION! DANGER! Somebody somewhere in 1997 considered these books so
dangerous that they tried to have them removed from library shelves.
They are among the titles which were either challenged or actually
censored somewhere in America last year.
"The House of the Spirits," "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,"
"Forever," "The Hunt for Red October," "Goosebumps" series, "It's
Perfectly Natural," " One Hundred Years of Solitude," "Snow Falling on
Cedars," "Inherit the Wind," "Beloved," "A Day No Pigs Would Die,"
"Catcher in the Rye," "Of Mice and Men," "The Adventures of Tom
Sawyer," "The Color Purple."
The last week in September is Banned Books Week, whose slogan is
"Celebrate the Freedom to Read." Excerpts from books that have been
banned or challenged will be read aloud in libraries and book stores
across the country. The latest edition of the annual "Banned Books
Resource Book" lists 1323 titles, a compilation of actual or attempted
bannings over the centuries worldwide.
The real target of the censor, of course, is the free flow of ideas.
Political and religious freedom have been major targets through the
Caligula tried to ban Homer's "Odyssey" because it expressed Greek ideas
of freedom - dangerous in autocratic Rome. Socrates was condemned for
"corrupting the young with, yes, ideas of freedom. Thomas Paine, who
also wrote of freedom, was indicted for treason in his native Britain.
Religious censorship has an interesting if fiery history. Dante's
"Divine Comedy" was publicly burned in France. In 1525 in England 600
copies of the New Testament translated by William Tyndale were burned in
the public square.
In recent years, sex has surpassed politics and religion as a reason for
censorship, most of it in the guise of "protecting our children." In
view of the sexual revolution of the sixties and the fact that most of
those rebels are now parents, I find this rather amusing. Of the ten
most challenged books last year, nine were challenged on the basis of
sexual words or situations. The 10th was "The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn," on the grounds that it is racist, proving that we
are an equal opportunity society.
I hate censorship with a real passion. There is very little about it
that I can laugh at. But there are a few reasons would be censors have
given that are so ridiculous that I let myself snicker a little bit.
In "Where's Waldo? "there is a tiny drawing of a woman lying on the
beach wearing a bikini bottom but no top. I spent 15 minutes one day
trying unsuccessfully to find her so I could be offended, but I suppose
censors have sharper eyes.
"Tarzan" made the list because he was living in sin with Jane.
That wonderful children's book by Shel Silverstein, "Light in the
Attic," was challenged because it "encourages children to break dishes
so they won't have to dry them."
Dee Brown's "Don't Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee," was removed because,
"If there is a probability that something might be controversial, then
why not eliminate it?"
And Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Aurora Leigh" was banned in Boston in
1857 as "the hysterical indecencies of an erotic mind."
"Banned in Boston" was the phrase of my youth. Whenever we heard of a
book that had been so honored, we dashed to the local library for a copy
The list of the 100 Best Novels English novels, compiled by a group of
scholars for Modern Library, contains 37 titles which are on the banned
books list. It is quite possible that the censors have not read the
In the "Banned Books Resource Book," Robert Doyle writes, "When books
are challenged, restricted, removed or banned, an atmosphere of
suppression exists. . . The fear of the consequences of censorship can
be as damaging as the actual censorship attempt. After all, when a
published work is banned, it can usually be found elsewhere.
Unexpressed ideas, unpublished works are lost forever."
The latest censorship battle is taking place on the Internet. Every
time a new technology allows greater dissemination of information, the
censors are waiting.
The world is full of bad books along with fine ones, but, as Henry
Steele Commager said, "The fact is that censorship always defeats its
own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is
incapable of exercising real discretion."
Read a banned book next week.