Yay! It’s Banned Book Week!
Banned book week began in 1982 as a way of encouraging people to read books that have been (or are) banned, censored or challenged.
Some such books were targeted by governments, public schools and libraries because they are “dirty”. The issue was either profanity or sexuality and people were discouraged or prevented from reading the book because of its foulness.
Unfortunately, some of these “dirty” books are very important to literature and the history of mankind as a whole. They also happen to be really, really good reading.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Written in the 14th or 15th century, The Canterbury Tales is one of the oldest works in the English language. The work contains some of the oldest know uses of “ar*e”, “sh*t”, “pi*s” and “c*nt” (spelled “queynte”by Chaucer). Under the 1873 Comstock law in the United States, this book could not be sent through the mail. As recently as 1995, the book was banned from a Senior High preparatory course in Illinois for obscenity.
The Complete Works of William ShakespeareRead more in Classics
Individual works of Shakespeare have been banned from schools throughout history. Some have been pulled from libraries. The most infamous muzzling of the Bard however, came from a man named Thomas Bowdler, who infamously created a “family friendly” version of Shakespeare’s works. His editing cut the works to about 10% of what they were and made mincemeat of some of the finest prose in the English language. Since then, “bowdlerizing” has been synonymous with censorship.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
This novel was banned way back in 1885 by the Concord Public Library. They weren’t the only ones to refer to this classic- considered to be the Great American Novel- as “trash suitable only for the slums”. The Brooklyn Public Library would ban the book from its stacks in 1902 saying that Huckleberry said “sweat” when he should have said “perspiration.”
It’s use of slang and in modern times, it’s frank use of the “n word” by characters in the book have made The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn one of the most challenged book in America, according to the America Library Association. Others have wanted to ban the book because, apparently, it makes racists look bad.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This is the second most frequently challenged book in the US. It is Angelou’s autobiography and it’s use of profanity is not the only reason people oppose it. Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend as a child. She also became pregnant as a teenager. Her honest depiction of these events has led some to dismiss the autobiography as “inappropriate”.
Which begs the question: are the censors saying it’s inappropriate for a child to be raped (I agree with you & so does the author) or are they saying it’s inappropriate to talk about it?
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Banned from some schools because of troubling ideas about God, race relations, sexuality, nature etc. This novel won the Pulitzer prize in 1983 and became an award-winning film directed by Steven Spielberg. The novel is written in epistolary form, capturing the uneducated voice of Celie, a black woman in the Deep South in the early 20th century. She endures sexual abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse and racial discrimination in her journey to find a sense of her own value- and her family.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Published in 1857, this classic French work about a woman with too much energy and ambition for her own good was the subject of a sensational obscenity trial. The trial resulted in acquittal & the novel became a bestseller.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman, the “Father of Free Verse”, was America’s poet. He wrote about the issues that the fledgling nation faced in a voice that was distinct and clear. His was among the first American works of literature that was distinctly American, not merely imitating Europe. Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. It has been repeatedly censored & banned over the years, with many of his most sexual poems omitted. It was banned in Boston in 1881.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H Lawrence
This classic story of an adulterous affair has been banned in the US (1929), banned in Ireland (1932), Poland (1932), Australia (1959), Japan (1959), Canada (1960-1962) and China (1987).
So, you know it’s good.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
France (1959), Argentina (1959), New Zealand (1960) and South Africa, not to mention countless public schools and libraries in the US, Lolita is about a man who takes complete control of a little girls life. The man is Humbert Humbert and the story is told from his point of view.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This novel is about a dystopian future where all books are banned by a totalitarian government. Guy Montag is the protagonist and he helps to burn the books- he is a fireman. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books burn.
The irony of censoring such a book has been lost on some. In Irvine, California, all of the “hells” & “damns” were blotted out with black ink. When parents complained, the teachers passed out new, uncensored copies.
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