In honor of the 31st annual Banned Books Week, we asked our staff to tell us about their experiences with banned books and their thoughts on censorship. Part 1 of the series was published earlier this week.
More information about Banned Books Week, and lists of books that have been banned, can be found here.
Anna: The determination our country has had in suppressing any expression or discussion of the key issues of our time should be infuriatingly blatant to anyone who scans the list of “Banned Books That Shaped America.” Books that tackle civil rights (Native Son, Bury My Heart At Wounded), women’s and gay issues (Beloved, Howl) and poverty (Grapes of Wrath) have all been banned. The list also exemplifies America’s fear of sexual and less traditional political subjects (Sexual Behavior in The Human Male, Catch 22). Then, of course, there is the reparation-like banning of books (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn). First we banned books because we were afraid of their propaganda, and now we are banning books because we are afraid of insulting the very same people we called “propagandists.” What is this constant need to immediately ban anything too foreign, too raw, or too close to our own dark little secrets? By banning a book, the underlying issues and tensions are never resolved. Instead, why don’t we keep the book on the shelf and let the discussion it fosters speak for itself?
Chris: In 1957 there was an obscenity trial held for Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl. In the poem Ginsberg describes men dragged off of roofs “waving genitals” and “human seraphim” that “blew” and “were blown.” The imagery is potent with references to drugs, booze, and sexual exploration. Today this scenario could be prime material for any literary endeavor or HBO gen -Y series. A large amount of gratitude must be given to the late poet–the controversy of his piece led to the defining of art’s place in society, and its social relevance. Now, generations later, writers such as myself can create with an honest, unforgiving pen, giving audience to a variety of perspectives, lifestyles, and a once voiceless class: the youth.
Ricky: I love Harry Potter and I know you do too, so hush. But years ago, I tried reading the first one and then gave up, saying, “Nah. This is kids’ stuff.” What didn’t help was that I was visually inundated by the book – in every park, on every train, in every hand. “Nope, not for me,” I thought, judging a book by its cover and feeling awesome about it. Like that guy in the office that everyone wants to sleep with, I was turned off by Harry’s charms and pedestrian appeal.
Then I saw Prisoner of Azkaban in the theater, and I wanted to know what happens next without having to wait a year of my life. I read Goblet of Fire ravenously and never looked back, revisiting HP installments annually like turkey suppers and kisses at midnight.
Maybe some of the worst constraints placed on us aren’t from the “man” but from ourselves. Our personal libraries, in a way, are more than just stylized display cases, but perhaps self-censored tombs.
Bean: The other day, I was walking by a street artist who had deconstructed hardcover books and repurposed their jackets for paintings. I recalled, too, the art of Ann Hamilton, who practices a dynamic erasure in her performance installations. Immediately, I was struck with contradictory emotions that both came from loving books: a joy toward the artistry and a contempt for the deconstruction.
What are these conflicting yet coexisting emotions, and which must I privilege?
Neither. We must understand that deconstruction is not the same as destruction. The history of book burnings has left us with a singular view of any similar action. But we must, in all situations, take into account intent and expression before we default to a generalization. These artistic and discursive practices are efforts to converse, not abolish. It is a discussion, indeed engagement, which is not the same thing as censorship. It is an enrichment.
Ary: When I found out that David Pilkey’s Captain Underpants ranked number one as the most challenged book of 2012, I wanted to laugh. The challengers listed “offensive language” and “content unsuited for the target age group” as their reasons for banning the book. Parents and teachers do not approve of the superhero and crude jokes that the young readers enjoy. Bathroom humor, flip book animation scenes of epic fights, a bitter school staff, and two outcast boys obsessed with a fantasy world come together to make this book series the children find relatable and delightful. Kids love the unconventional world of Captain Underpants, but that does not mean that they, like the titular super hero, will take off all their clothes and start fighting talking toilets. Hopefully, this hilarious superhero will encourage children to read for years to come.