Although Banned Books Week–an annual week-long celebration of the freedom to read–already occurred in September, it is always relevant to think about issues of censorship and book banning, both in the United States and countries around the world. While banning books might seem like a practice of the past–challenged by modern, progressive ideas of intellectual expression–hundred of complaints and challenges to different titles (over 464 in 2012) are reported by the American Library Association each year. Over 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982.
I remember seeing posters for Banned Books Week in my middle and high-school libraries, covered in pictures of popular titles–like Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye–that were currently or had previously been taken off of library shelves. Many of the novels that are consistently challenged are those that contain sexually explicit language or scenes, such as Looking For Alaska by John Green and Beloved by Toni Morrison. Books with “offensive language,” such as Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, also often face challenges. Opponents of the Harry Potter series have criticized the books as “Satanist” or “cult” works, while Aldus Huxley’s acclaimed novel Brave New World has been challenged on almost all possible grounds, being labeled overly sexually explicit, offensive, racist, and religiously offensive.
The vast number of books that are consistently challenged year and year, including classic titles that are considered among the best works in the canon of world literature, is alarming. If individuals and groups succeeded in having these titles removed from library shelves and school curricula, what would students and children read? According to the Office of Intellectual Freedom, over 46 books deemed among the “Top 100 Novels of 20th Century” by the Radcliffe Publishing Course have either been repeatedly challenged or banned. From Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was #1 on the list, to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which was #12, the majority of the books our society has deemed as classic literature are seen to contain at least one offensive element. To call attention to the importance of these supposedly “dangerous” texts, the Library of Congress created an exhibit called “Banned Books That Shaped America,” focusing on great works that are consistently critiqued or removed from schools and libraries.
In American culture, where most students are exposed to violence, foul language, and sexually explicit materials through multiple media outlets, why is literature under such great attack? In some ways, this seems like a testament to the power of writing, for these challenges indicate fear about the ability for literature to influence and change perspectives and ways of thinking. It also indicates a fear that exists in the U.S. and in countries around the world that certain information, and even certain words, need to be hidden and silenced.
While challenging and banning books from school or public libraries and programs may seem relatively harmless, banning and censoring books can become highly politicized and even violent. The controversy that arose surrounding Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed novel The Satanic Verses, a work that deals with the history of Islam as well as the potentially destructive nature of religious binaries and fervor, is a perfect example of how literature and censorship can contribute to political divisions and bloodshed. After its publication in 1988, Muslims around the world accused Rushdie of blasphemy and of defaming their faith, specifically through his representations of the life and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (“Mahound” in the text). The book was first banned in India, and spurred violent riots and book burnings in many countries. The leader of Iran issued a fatwa against Rushdie, calling on Muslims to kill the author and those involved in the book’s publication. While Rushdie escaped physical harm and was placed under police protection by the British government, others were not so fortunate: the book’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991, and the Norwegian publisher was shot several times in an assassination attempt in 1993. The novel is still banned in all predominantly Muslim nations except Turkey.
While attempts to ban books in the U.S. are far less extreme than the Rushdie controversy, both cases demonstrate the power of literature to incite emotions within and reactions from readers, and to potentially offend or appear dangerous to certain groups. Such titles must be read precisely because they are problematic and controversial, possibly offering perspectives that have not yet been seen in the literary world.