Thursday, October 4, 2012

Thoughts on Banned Books Week

Banned books week is September 30 through October 6 this year (2012). I have decided to observe this literary holiday each year by reading a banned book. There appear to be enough to keep me occupied for some time.

Banned Books Week selections (updated yearly):

Areopagitica by John Milton (2011) (Written in defiance of censorship laws - and thus pre-banned in England)

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (2012) (Banned in the Confederate States)

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf   (2013) (Banned in the author's native East Germany) 

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (2014) (Banned throughout the Arab world)

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (2015) (Banned in Nazi Germany) 

July's People by Nadine Gordimer (2016) (Banned in apartheid South Africa)

Into the River by Ted Dawe (2017) (Banned for under-14 in New Zealand - in 2014) 

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (2018) (Banned in several states and in Dallas, Texas in the 1970s)

Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith (2019) (The original "Banned In Boston" bestseller)  

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China  by Jung Chang (2020) (Banned in Communist China)

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (2021) (banned for import to the US, until a Supreme Court case in 1964)


First, a distinction needs to be made between banned books and “challenged” books. In order to qualify as a banned book, the book must have been forbidden publication or possession by a government. In contrast, a book that parents or others seek to remove from a library or school curriculum is merely “challenged”, even if the book is in fact removed.

In my opinion, there is a difference between the two. Not all books are appropriate for children or teens, and those who wish to read a challenged book anyway can presumably locate a library or bookstore. Those books actually banned were denied to all unless they were willing and able to break the law. On a related note, much of what we call “censorship” isn’t really censorship. The original definition of censorship was “The practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and suppressing unacceptable parts.” Censorship requires actual power to suppress, not merely disapproval. Libraries have a limited budget, and must choose which books to buy. (For reasons which escape me, the library system for the San Joaquin Valley - serving roughly four million people - has 37 copies of Eat, Pray, Love, but only ONE of Listen to This, which is backordered for weeks. Not a choice I would have made.) Similarly, students cannot read every important book, much less the unimportant ones, so choices must be made.

While I have thus limited my list to truly banned books, I include books that have been banned by any government, at any time in history.

I believe that there is value in reading banned books. As an inquiring mind, one often wonders what was believed so unacceptable as to provoke a violent reaction. The answer in many cases throws an unflattering light on the persons and institutions that banned the book.

Generally speaking, there are two reasons books have been banned. The first is the presence of material deemed morally unacceptable by the authorities. Interestingly, the application of this standard is inconsistent at best. Certain nations at certain time periods have shown more interest in suppressing smut than others. Thus, France was the source of much scandalous material during the Victorian age, while England and the United States attempted to ban the same books. Also, exactly what is deemed objectionable has varied considerably.

A couple of examples come to mind on this point. The Grapes of Wrath was banned in many states because of a scene involving a bare breast. Never mind that this was perhaps the least titillating scene of all time. (Pardon the bad pun.) On the other hand, the scene in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was allowed, despite a humorous and ribald reference to the same anatomy.

I also noted a modern version of this listening to the radio on the way home from work today. Nickelback’s song, Rockstar, has several drug references, some of which are bleeped on the radio version. I am not quite sure exactly it is bad to hear “drugs come cheap” or “drug dealer on speed dial” but is fine to say “pop my pills from a pez dispenser.”

The second reason for censorship never goes out of style. The ruling powers throughout history take a serious dislike to criticism, and have used their powers to suppress it. The majority of the books on any banned book list, therefore, will have political content that was in some way offensive to those who wished to cling to their power and avoid dissent.

Thus, one of the satisfactions of reading a banned book is to defy autocratic despots, past and present.

Last year’s selection was Areopagitica, by John Milton. To read it was to stick it to both Charles the First and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament. Another favorite read of the past was The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie - a particular un-favorite of Mullahs everywhere.

And, because I cannot resist linking a little a propos music. Nobody can invoke Balzac like Hermione Gingold. 



  1. That is actually not the only reason Grapes of Wrath was banned. Many aspects of it were considered obscene and "portraying life in a bestial way." Original article here:,586276

  2. Again, another very interesting post and I like how you draw it in to the book club discussion this month.

    I think I understand why books have been banned, but would have confused some titles between being challenged or outright banned as you've defined it for us here.

    Laughing about there being 37 copies of Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, somethings just do not make sense.

  3. The sad part is, there are also 37 copies of Eat, Pray, Love at the Goodwill book store for 75 cents each...and you don't have to drive back and drop them off in a certain amount of time!

    I really enjoyed Uncle Tom's Cabin. I read it either right before or after Disney's the Princess and the Frog came out... and was surprised at all of the tie ins that could be made.