Banned Books

May 5, 2008

I used to work at a used bookstore chain that celebrated Banned Books Week every year by building large, creative displays of books “banned” in the United States. The display always provoked a lot of discussion amongst staff and customers alike.

Customers of all ages were always befuddled that beloved classics or personal favorites had found their way to such ignominious acclaim–“Banned!?” Many rightfully indignant readers would sometimes, to the chagrin of staff and other onlookers, be proponents of banning books of their own choosing.

America, to the best of my knowledge has not banned a book–at least not for a very long time. However, school boards, local libraries, and various other organizations ban books for their specific audiences–removing them from library shelves, hosting community book burnings, and the like. The Missouri Humanities Council has recently reproduced two such lists, asking commenters to proclaim their favorite from the lists.

From the two list they offer I have a hard time picking a favorite. Many of the books are canonized classics that I love more or less equally. Some are unknown to me. Wikipedia offers a more complete list of “most commonly challenged books in the U.S.” As they explain, this list does not limit itself to books that have actually been removed from bookshelves but, odds are, that many of them have been. At any rate, these are the books that are most frequently under attack.

I have a hard time picking a favorite off this list too but for a completely different reason. So many books appear on the list that picking my favorite challenged book is equivalent to picking my favorite book.

In lieu of picking my favorite, here are my top 5 from the Wikipedia List (in no particular order):

  • The House of Spirits
  • Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Invisible Man
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • The Handmaid’s Tale

Actually, in narrowing down to five, I found the task basically impossible and I’m regretting the list already. How, after all, could I have failed to place Huckleberry Finn or Brave New World? So I tried to limit my choices to reflect those books like Fahrenheit 451–the banning of which reveals a fundamental lack of of a sense of irony on the part of the banning organization.

Photo by Flickr user mrtwism used under a Creative Commons license.

This entry was posted by: Jim


  1. What upsets me the most about this list of “most commonly challenged books” is the large number of children and young adult books on the list. I see “Blubber,” “The Bridge to Terabithia,” and the “Anastasia Krupnik” series on this list and all I can think about are all the kids who won’t have a chance to read these classics. These books helped me realize that kids, like adults, have a moral obligation toward each other, and that I never wanted to be the person inflicting pain on others.

  2. How we handle the exposure of children to “undesirable” artistic content is a precarious balancing act. On the one hand, children need the help of thoughtful parents, teachers, civic leaders, etc to become educated, thoughtful adults.

    On the other hand, the tendency has been to take that obligation too far–extending personal choice to community-level restrictions. The natural result is that a personal policy which may have good or bad effects in one home leads to a stifling and negative effect on the larger society.

    Children–unable to articulate the good things they are learning from these challenged works, are the most direct victims.

  3. As a parent myself, I can not help but to agree with Jim’s post. Unfortunately I am afraid that another act, that is just as disturbing, is beginning to take root in America; the act of boycotting. Clearly it is not very acceptable to “ban” a book or movie, but we can certainly call for a boycott (I think of the most recent call against the film “The Golden Compass” or the noise every time a Harry Potter book or movie is released). It seems that the “great American innovator” has again created an euphemism for yet another socially destructive action.

  4. Well, certainly as a supporter of the arts and humanities I would prefer if no one attempted to stage a boycott of worthwhile art/entertainment. On the other hand, boycotts are a part of civic dialogue and I don’t think they are nearly as disturbing as a ban, at least they’re voluntary.

    I had a much longer response to this piece but it’s almost long enough to be worthy of a post itself–so maybe it will be. Thanks for your comment.

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