Banned Books Week is drawing to a close, but that doesn't mean we have to stop celebrating banned books and the ability to read them! As usual, the best resources are the official Banned Books Week site, the American Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English (its related anti-censorship page is good, too). The Banned Books YouTube channel has some great read-out videos. The links on the ALA's Frequently Challenged Books page are highly useful. (I'm always interested in reading the reasons books have been challenged or banned, although the sites could do a better job of making that information accessible.) Meanwhile, my archives on banned books feature some extensive posts.
The ALA provides some useful statistics:
Background Information from 2000 to 2009
Over this recent past decade, 5,099* challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom.
- 1,577 challenges due to "sexually explicit" material;
- 1,291 challenges due to "offensive language";
- 989 challenges due to materials deemed "unsuited to age group";
- 619 challenged due to "violence"' and
- 361 challenges due to "homosexuality."
Further, 274 materials were challenged due to "occult" or "Satanic" themes, an additional 291 were challenged due to their "religious viewpoint," and 119 because they were "anti-family."
Please note that the number of challenges and the number of reasons for those challenges do not match, because works are often challenged on more than one ground.
1,639 of these challenges were in school libraries; 1,811 were in classrooms; 1,217 took place in public libraries. There were 114 challenges to materials used in college classes; and 30 to academic libraries. There are isolated cases of challenges to library materials made available in or by prisons, special libraries, community groups, and students. The vast majority of challenges were initiated by parents (2,535), with patrons and administrators to follow (516 and 489 respectively).
*We receive challenge reports after the top ten list has been published. This number reflects all the challenges we received since July 31, 2013 for the 2000-2009 time period.
One of my favorite pieces this year comes from Dav Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants series:
This makes some key points I've attempted to make before. There's a huge difference between saying "I don't wan't to read that book" or even "I don't want my kid to read that book" and saying "No one should be able to read that book" or "No one's kid should be able to read that book." These are not equivalent positions.
Stan Lee also has a good video on the value of comic books:
(More comic-related links are below, but the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund site remains one of the best.)
Slaughterhouse-Five and Kurt Vonnegut
As it so happens, I recently finished reading a banned and challenged book, Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. I've read a fair amount of science fiction, but somehow missed most of Vonnegut's work, so this had been on my "overdue to read" pile. I've seen the (superbly edited) film adaptation multiple times, so I knew the premise and plot. (Protagonist "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." Very mild spoilers to follow.)
Vonnegut's writing style is smooth, clear and uncluttered, rarely drawing attention to itself. This makes Slaughterhouse-Five a quick read. Vonnegut pens some memorable lines, but his focus is on telling the story, not dazzling us with a turn a phrase; he's more interested in character, plot and structure, and ideas. Structurally, the novel jumps around in time with Billy Pilgrim, who often seems blasé to some of those around him, because he knows both what's going to happen and that he can't change it. (The effect is a bit Brechtian.) My one major criticism of the novel is that Vonnegut overuses a key phrase, 'So it goes," which is supposed to sum up the absurdity of life. It does so effectively, but sometimes he'll use it three times on two pages, or twice in a single paragraph, which undercuts its strength. That said, Slaughterhouse-Five is an ambitious novel, mixing meditations on the horrors of war and mass destruction with the arc of a human life with time travel and aliens. It's to Vonnegut's credit that what was surely seen as genre-hopping when the book was released in 1969 goes down so smoothly. Among other things, the book explores how human beings cope with mortality and trauma, hardly light subjects, yet Vonnegut's satirical, slightly removed outlook and brisk prose ensures that the affair isn't ponderous, despite its weight. Part of Vonnegut's artistry lies in hiding his craft, because the structure of the novel is fairly intricate – when and where it jumps in time, and what is doled out versus hinted at versus withheld, is quite deliberate. We're not supposed to notice all this during a casual reading, but there's a fair amount going on below the surface, hinted at by the slightly open ending.
Slaughterhouse-Five has been banned or challenged multiple times. The Banned Books Timeline states that:
In 1982, a sharply divided Supreme Court found that students’ First Amendment rights were violated when Slaughterhouse-Five and 8 other titles were removed from junior and senior high school libraries. The Island Trees (NY) School District School Board removed the books in 1976 because they were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, the Court found that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Vonnegut’s satirical novel, published in 1969, considers themes of war and human nature, and is widely regarded as his most influential work.
The ALA has a more exhaustive list:
- Challenged in many communities, but burned in Drake, ND (1973).
- Banned in Rochester, MI because the novel "contains and makes references to religious matters" and thus fell within the ban of the establishment clause. An appellate court upheld its usage in the school in Todd v Rochester Community Schools, 41 Mich. App. 320, 200 N. W 2d 90 (1972).
- Banned in Levittown, NY (1975), North Jackson, OH (1979), and Lakeland, FL (1982) because of the "book's explicit sexual scenes, violence, and obscene language."
- Barred from purchase at the Washington Park High School in Racine, WI (1984) by the district administrative assistant for instructional services.
- Challenged at the Owensboro, KY High School library (1985) because of "foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to 'Magic Fingers' attached to the protagonist's bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: 'The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty."'
- Restricted to students who have parental permission at the four Racine, WI Unified District high school libraries (1986) because of "language used in the book, depictions of torture, ethnic slurs, and negative portrayals of women."
- Challenged at the LaRue County, KY High School library (1987) because "the book contains foul language and promotes deviant sexual behavior.”
- Banned from the Fitzgerald, GA schools (1987) because it was filled with profanity and full of explicit sexual references:' Challenged in the Baton Rouge, LA public high school libraries (1988) because the book is "vulgar and offensive."
- Challenged in the Monroe, MI public schools (1989) as required reading in a modern novel course for high school juniors and seniors because of the book's language and the way women are portrayed.
- Retained on the Round Rock, TX Independent High School reading list (1996) after a challenge that the book was too violent.
- Challenged as an eleventh grade summer reading option in Prince William County, VA (1998) because the book "was rife with profanity and explicit sex."
- Removed as required reading for sophomores at the Coventry, RI High School (2000) after a parent complained that it contains vulgar language, violent imagery, and sexual content.
- Retained on the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 reading list in Arlington Heights, IL (2006), along with eight other challenged titles. A board member, elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, raised the controversy based on excerpts from the books she'd found on the internet.
- Challenged in the Howell, MI High School (2007) because of the book's strong sexual content. In response to a request from the president of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, or LOVE, the county's top law enforcement official reviewed the books to see whether laws against distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors had been broken. "After reading the books in question, it is clear that the explicit passages illustrated a larger literary, artistic or political message and were not included solely to appeal to the prurient interests of minors," the county prosecutor wrote. "Whether these materials are appropriate for minors is a decision to be made by the school board, but I find that they are not in violation of criminal laws."
The mention of book-burning raised an eyebrow for me – somebody burned copies of a book that, among other things, depicts Germany during WWII. No irony there! The site Letters of Note reprints a letter by Vonnegut responding to the incident, and provides more context:
In October of 1973, Bruce Severy —a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school's furnace as a result of its "obscene language." Other books soon met with the same fate.
On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn't receive a reply.
Vonnegut's letter is remarkable:
November 16, 1973
Dear Mr. McCarthy:
I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.
Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.
I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?
I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.
If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.
After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.
I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.
If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.
Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.
Why, it's almost as if the letter's author is a good writer and reading his work might have value! (The section about "civilization" and how books are "sacred" is probably my favorite.) The funny thing is, Slaughterhouse-Five seems relatively tame compared to some other banned and challenged books. How repressed and authoritarian does someone have to be not only tp ban a book, but to burn it, over a little profanity?
(I've posted earlier about a superb term paper assignment Vonnegut gave out when teaching at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.)
Publishing house Simon and Schuster, at Buzzfeed, provides "11 Quotes From Authors On Censorship and Banned Books" (including Vonnegut).
The Columbus State Community College Library, at Buzzfeed, provides "20 Life Lessons Learned From Reading Banned & Challenged Comics."
Reading Addicts' poll of readers' 15 Desert Island Books contains several banned or challenged titles.
Meanwhile, in a piece of good news, the public schools in Rochester, Minnesota voted to keep a "controversial" book in the curriculum, The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich.
If you wrote a post celebrating reading banned or challenged books, feel free to link it in the comments.