Sep 27, 2010, 08:34AM

The Banning Plays On

Banned Book Week highlights a surprising number of classics still considered too controversial for our nation's schools.

Remember all the sex in that lurid tome Catcher in the Rye? How about the filthy language that runs chockablock through Fahrenheit 451? Of course you’re still kept up at night by memories of Lord of the Flies—not by the incipient horror of its plot or psychological themes, but by its overwhelming racism.


Those continue to be three of the longest-lived “banned books” in the U.S. today, according to the American Library Association, one of the sponsors of Banned Books Week, running through Saturday, Oct. 2. The idea behind the annual BBW is to highlight “the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted banning of books across the United States.”

The focus of BBW is on high schools and parents, who still frequently butt heads over what books are on the curricula. It’s hard to believe that when basic cable can get away with saying “shit” and a few clicks on the Internet can open your eyes to practically anything imaginable, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is accused of encouraging “racial hatred, racial division, racial separation, and promot[ing] white supremacy.”

Most are familiar with the usual litany of complaints against books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Mark Twain dared to casually employ the word “nigger” in a manner reflective of the times and setting of his novel, and both Catcher and 451, which actually use the term “god damn” and thus are corrupting young minds. (That 451 is a book about the evils of censorship is, of course, an irony that passes by most book-burners banners.)

But while these examples may seem laughable, be assured that for many in this country they are not. Banned Books Week began in 1982, after challenges to books skyrocketed. According to the BBW, more than 1000 books have been challenged in every state in the country since then.

Parents should have a say in what their children are asked to do in school, and many take such an active interest in the subject. But really: The Sun Also Rises? Catch-22? The Grapes of Wrath? Nineteen Eighty-Four? These books are going to curve your offspring’s spines, turn them into slavering beasts, and/or topple western civilization? Yet they continue to run afoul of parents afraid that exposure to the adult themes contained within will cause irreparable damage to their kids’ minds.

I grew up in a town that wasn’t liberal, but walked the halls of my high school with A Clockwork Orange under my arm, and checked out The Portable Nietzsche from the school library, without ever committing a bit of the ultra-violence or descending into syphilitic madness. I didn’t cause a ripple of outrage from my schoolmates, teachers, parents, or the community at large. (I also dipped into James Joyce’s Ulysses, in part to glom onto the big sex scenes. Like many underage would-be Joyce scholars, I merely came away from the experience with a headache.)

Are there books out there that would best remain unread by high school students? It’s a slippery slope, but I’d say yes. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion comes to mind. Mein Kampf. The 120 Days of Sodom. Yet any book can be instructive, as a means of identifying philosophical or sexual concepts that may or may not align with one’s own.

It’s a big world out there, with a lot of ideas, some of them very ugly. But isn’t high school supposed to be about preparing teenagers for that world? And, given that Sodom isn’t going to be showing up on a school reading list anytime soon, isn’t it time that we trust that The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury can be taught with at least a modicum of responsibility?


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