Five Must Reads for Banned Books Week

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

About Banned Books and Banned Books Week

Too often in recent history, individuals, schools and community groups have battled against books, many of them classic works by celebrated authors. Many masterpieces have been banned, censored or otherwise restricted for explicit sex scenes (Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita) and obscene vocabulary (Harper Lee’sTo Kill a Mockingbird). Still others have been deemed inappropriate because of religious content (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) or politically incorrect language (Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).  And while would-be book banners are usually well-intentioned, hoping to protect innocent and underage minds from the uglier aspects of these writings, it is my firm belief that there is no place for institutionalized or government-mandated book-banning, or censorship in a society that values the freedom of expression guaranteed to American citizens in the first amendment.

So it’s unsurprising that I’m a staunch supporter of Banned Book Week.

Sponsored by the American Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, among others, Banned Books Week is a yearly event that aims to draw our attention to the dangers of censorship and celebrates our ongoing fight to defend the right of books of every type and subject matter to exist and be read, no matter how unpopular the ideas they contain may be.

A Call to Action

Protect and promote banned classics by (what else?) reading them. Here are five suggestions from ALA’s list of Banned Classics.

  1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – Perhaps Steinbeck’s most celebrated work (and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot), The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers, and their cross-country trek to California in search of survival during the Great Depression. While the work is fraught with controversial religious references and sprinkled with strong language throughout, it’s well worth a reading as a realistic and well-written portrayal of life during the Dust Bowl.
  1. Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut – Long considered Vonnegut’s best and most influential work, Slaughterhouse-5 is about World War II, sort of. Taken prisoner by the Germans, protagonist Billy Pilgrim is a poor excuse for a soldier. While imprisoned in Slaughterhouse number 5 in Dresden, Billy becomes “unstuck” in time and experiences his future and past. At one point, he even travels to an alien world where he is exhibited in a zoo with a movie star. Like most of Vonnegut’s writing, Slaughterhouse-5 is delightfully bizarre and includes an appearance by recurring character, Kilgore Trout.
  1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin – In spare, elegant prose, The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother of two falling in love with a man who is not her husband, as well as her struggle to reconcile her views on femininity and family life with the prevailing attitudes of the society she lived in. Considered a landmark work of early feminism, and a precursor to writings by celebrated southern writers like Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams, the novel was controversial and strongly criticized upon its publication in 1899 and Kate Chopin never wrote another.
  1. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf – Counted among Woolf’s most accessible works, Orlando is the gender-bending story of a young man who decides not to grow old. One day he wakes up after a days-long nap in Turkey to the happy surprise that he’s become a woman, and then lives his life flitting between traditional gender roles, dressing alternately as a man and a woman, depending on circumstance, living an exciting, and centuries-long life.
  1. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie – In The Satanic Verses, Salmon Rushdie embeds religiously charged episodes of magical realism into the story of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, Indian actors and expatriates that get trapped in a hijacked plane flying from India to Britain. Some of references to the life of Muhammad and Muslim culture in the dream sequences were so controversial among some Muslim communities that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, issued a fatwa calling on all faithful Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers.

Of course, maybe you’ve already read the ALA’s list of banned books in its entirety. Or perhaps one of your all-time favorite books is on the list. Or it could be that you just like the sound of your own voice. Why not participate in the ALA’s Virtual Read-Out for Banned Books Week (September 30 through October 6, 2012) by uploading a short video of yourself, reading a few lines from your favorite prohibited tome?

A Quote and a Final Reflection:

“I don’t want to be shut out from the truth. If they ban books, they might as well lock us away from the world.”—Rory Edwards, 12, Washington Post, Getting It Down at Writing Camp

It may sound melodramatic, but I wholeheartedly agree with the above quote from Rory Edwards. Books allow us to do, see and live so many different things and places that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Banning and censoring books limits our experiences and possibilities in ways that are hard to measure until it’s too late to retrieve what we’ve lost in trying to make all writings “appropriate” and “comfortable” for all publics. Discomfort while reading is almost always a good sign. Most often it means you’re learning about something beyond your prior knowledge or assumptions, and progressing as a human being.

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Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Monrovia Public Library – Monrovia, California.

5 Replies to “Five Must Reads for Banned Books Week”

  1. Chris,

    Great post reminding us of Banned Books Week. Sometimes things just slip under the radar and are gone, and we do need to make our voices heard. Strange that the books on the banned lists are taught in schools today. I guess times and tastes change.
    Anjali

    1. That’s a great observation Anjali, times and tastes changes. And the truth of the matter, in my opinion, is that everyone should have the right to express themselves. Readers can always choose not to read a work. I wonder why this obsession with banning has never transformed into something more useful, like a movement to categorize books more like movies, with age ratings and content flags? Although, I’m not sure I’m in favor of that, either…

  2. My jaw just fell open. The Grapes of Wrath? How could anyone ban The Grapes of Wrath? I don’t even remember any “religious content”?

    And Slaughterhouse Five? I mean, some of it’s disturbing, but I wouldn’t ban the book – I’d rather blame the people who decided that firebombing a city full of civilians was a good idea.

    There’s something very sinister about banning books, and I’d only do it under very extreme circumstances, so extreme that I can’t right now think what they would be.

    1. The Grapes of Wrath makes reference to a pastor who seduces members of his congregation, and “blasphemous” swearing….. which seems to be what moved some groups to ban it….I like Slaughterhouse Five, but it’s not my favorite Vonnegut, even if it seems to be the most celebrated. of his works.

      I agree that there’s something very sinister about banning books. I don’t presently have children, but I think my attitude about books for children would be, I’ll read it first, and if it’s appropriate for you at present, you can read it, if it’s not, we’ll wait a few years. A lot of times I think banning and censorship has more to do with parents not wanting to do that extra work, or worry about explaining difficult concepts to kids, than anything.

      I will always remember in an AP English class in school one girl’s mom wouldn’t let her read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for religious reasons, which was interesting, because the book really didn’t have much religious content at all…I sincerely doubt the mom had actually read the book before deciding it was inappropriate for her 17-year-old daughter.

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