By Emma Schneider - June 20, 2020
Book banning and censorship have existed practically since the beginning of written language itself. The first example on record of book censorship dates to 259-210 BC when “The Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti is said to have buried alive 460 Confucian scholars to control the writing of history in his time.” As one can imagine, it only progresses rapidly from there with every new literary creation. Historically, written ideas have held a lot of power for both the writer and reader, and this power has created a desire for others to suppress and control it. However, the biggest misconception about book banning is that it has been left in the past, when in actuality it continues on through what we deem as “modernity”. Alongside other countries, The United States continues its tumultuous history with literary censorship.
When considering the idea of book banning, one may conjure the imagery of the book burnings that were endorsed by Hitler in WWII, or more popularly, in the film Footloose (1984) as John Lithgow tosses the books into the flames. While these did, and probably still does, occur in society - book banning and censorship undoubtedly occurs in forms other than the fiery inferno variety. First, there is an important distinction between book banning and challenging a book. Challenging occurs far more frequently, it is “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group”, while banning occurs if the challenge is processed and deemed successful.
So why challenge a book so it can potentially be banned? Books are challenged for a variety of reasons. Primarily the reason for challenging is that the content of the book is considered explicit, obscene, and/or challenging the perceived social standards of the time. Some religious and political groups use the power of “challenge” to attempt to ban books that support a different view than their own. Books with characters who identify as nonwhite or are of the LGBTQIA+ community are also often targeted to be challenged in hopes of banning them. The American Library Association (ALA) points out that “Books usually are challenged with the best intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information.” However, the ALA does not believe in the censorship of materials and promotes free access to these books regardless of content.
As stated prior, America has held a long history with the topic of literary censorship. Many books that have been, and continue to be challenged and banned are considered classics. George Orwell’s 1984, JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird rank as some of the most commonly challenged and banned books in the United States since their publications. 1984 questioned the role of government and was allegedly “pro communist”. The character of Holden Caulfield was viewed as inspiring kids to act out against authority figures in his book - making Catcher in the Rye one of the most challenged books of all time. Beloved was considered “anti-white” by some towns. Harper Lee discussed the lasting racism of the South through the eyes of the young girl, Scout Finch. All of these classic books were banned or challenged for containing themes and characters that stood out against the accepted social norms of their as well as what is deemed acceptable today. Primarily, this is due to the push for students to read these complex novels and parents or outside groups wishing to prevent that from happening in the educational setting or from the books being available at local libraries.
Not only classics are challenged however. Young Adult and Children’s literature are still continually challenged in order to “protect” children from what is held between the covers of these popular reads. Looking for Alaska (snarky teens), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (deviant characters), The Hate U Give (anti-white), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (underage drinking and obscene language), and And Tango Makes Three (the true story of two male penguins fathering an egg) to name a small handful of those continuously challenged since their publications.
Even The Boy Who Lived, himself is not safe from being challenged! Just last year a school in Tennessee banned the Harry Potter series from the school’s library shelves and the Pastor at the Catholic school defended his action by saying:
“These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception,” he explained. “The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”
This is hardly a new argument since the Harry Potter series has been endlessly challenged since 1999 for “promoting witchcraft” (the spells are just the latin words for what they do by the way).
Ultimately, book banning rises out of the fear of over-exposure or harming impressionable populations. That fear is mostly of someone reading a book that leads them to question the world around them. However, isn’t that why reading is so important? The ability to think critically about the world and pursue more knowledge is a direct result of reading controversial points of view. This is where public libraries step in. The ALA makes it so that libraries can provide an uncensored, unbiased reading experience, and freedom of access for patrons. There is even a banned books week in September (back-to-school) to celebrate and encourage the reading of these thought-provoking novels.
Although, you do not need to wait until September to have a little reading rebellion. Next time peruse the aisles perhaps you will find a tempting read to cause you to ask questions. The Great Gatsby will have you looking for that green light, Of Mice and Men is always a quick read, you can try to escape the Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five isn’t just a cool title, chase after Pennywise the clown with the Losers Club in IT, or just show your house pride and give Harry Potter a reread!