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To Ban or Not to Ban

To Ban or Not to Ban

As certain as death or taxes, it seems that so long as there are folks writing books there will always be those banning them. Little has changed these last couple centuries. The books banned half a century ago or more, like Lady Chatterley's Lover for sexual content, or Lolita for sexual perversity and overall obscenity, or books banned on more political or racial grounds like Uncle Tom's Cabin are still contested in some parts, and where they may now be allowed, other books are being challenged or banned in their place.

The last week of this month, Sept. 24 - Oct. 1, is Banned Books Week, an annual event held by the American Library Association (ALA) that they describe as "celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment." In light of this, we thought we'd highlight a selection of books banned in North America over the last few years. In almost all cases the bans refer to either sexual content, religious issues, race issues or in one instance a case of brutal violence. As well, the bans are almost always concerned with books assigned to schools. In that vein, it's worth noting that in some cases these books aren't being banned outright so much as they are being challenged on the grounds that they are not for young people.

When you see the books and the content questioned, where do you stand?

Contemporary Contentious Titles

Just last month the Huffington Post, amongst others, reported that a school district in New Jersey removed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's melancholy tale about unrequited love, Norwegian Wood, from its 10th grade honours English summer reading list. The book, about young people, love and death, is the best-selling novel of all time in Japan and was recently made into a movie. The Huffington Post reported that "the decision came after a handful of local parents complained about a 'graphic depiction of a lesbian sex scene between a 31-year-old woman and a 13-year-old girl which occurs in the book.'"

Murakami, whose fame has been largely thanks to a younger audience, is consistently regarded as a critical and commercial success the world over and has been touted numerous times to win the Nobel Prize. That said, to readers not familiar with the writer's often surreal and rather dream-like tales, his narratives can, to certain audiences, come over quite shocking as most of his novels do usually have a few erotic and at times, perhaps, graphic scenes in them. Japan's most famous author's next novel,1Q84, will be released across North America in Oct. 25. For a sense of the scope of the Japanese writer's popularity outside his native Japan, some American stores have already announced keeping their doors open until midnight on the book's release.

Murakami is not the only author drawing heat. Earlier this summer a high school in Missouri banned Kurt Vonnegut's counter-culture classic Slaughterhouse-Five from its library and curriculum alleging the book, which came out 42 years ago, promoted "values contrary to those found in the bible," including a scene of naked men and women having sex in a cage so people could watch, as well as a statement against Jesus Christ. Generally agreed to be Vonnegut's most influential and popular work, it is the satirical story of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim and his experiences as a soldier during World War II and his travels through time. Like most all of Vonnegut's oeuvre the book is as humorous (to some) as it is political. The Modern Library ranked it 18th on its list of the greatest English novels of the 20th century.

The ban on books extends well beyond adult literature and in fact all sorts of youth as well as children's literature has been banned these last few years. In fact, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, is second only to a children's book called And Tango Makes Three, on the ALA's list of most banned books in the United States, the latter being a children's picture book about the true story of two gay male penguins in the Central Park Zoo. Philip Pullman, meanwhile, whose fantasy trilogy is revered by his large cult following the way cult followers revere the Star Wars movies or the Harry Potter books (and movies), has been awarded the Carnegie Medal, a CBE and several honourary doctorates. The ban on his three books extends beyond the States, as just a few years ago a Catholic school board in Toronto banned first The Golden Compass and following that banned the two other books in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. According to the CBC, "A memo to principals said there were concerns the books were "anti-God, anti-Catholic and anti-religion."

One of the most popular series of books for young people to grace bookstores this decade, Suzanne Collins' wildly successful Hunger Games Trilogy was named this year to ALA's annual top 10 list of books most criticized in their communities. Collins herself, according to AP, was not surprised to have some react against her dystopian series that gets its name from the story's fictional annual televised event in which boys and girls from various districts of Collins' imagined post-apocalyptic world meet and are forced to fight to the death in an effort for the government to prove that not even children are beyond the reach of the Capitol's jurisdiction. "I've read in passing that people were concerned about the level of violence in the books," Collins' was quoted saying. "That's not unreasonable. They are violent. It's a war trilogy." With 2.9 million copies in print and versions in over 26 languages, it's safe to say that Collins' books have and continue to sell extremely well.

Banned Classics

A writer friend recently pointed out an interesting fact, that many of the books that we assign in school today to young people were not intended for those audiences in the first place. It could even be argued that a great book, be it The Catcher in the Rye or The Three Musketeers is as apt for a kid in junior high school as it is for a middle-aged adult or a senior citizen for that matter.

Often there is a feeling that a ban is a censorship on language or freedom, and yet of course the reverse argument suggests that a ban is a necessary way to retain a kind of freedom by eliminating or eradicating prejudice. To Kill a Mockingbird, long considered a classic work of literature about social rights and is anything, many would agree, but prejudiced, and yet it was banned two years ago from a high school in Brampton, Ontario. A parent objected to language used in the novel, including the obscenely vulgar "N" word used in reference to African-Americans.

Another classic of literature that many would consider a work in the service of social rights that is continually challenged is Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which the ALA cited being banned as recently as 2008 when a group of parents in Morgantown, North Carolina expressed concern about the homosexuality, rape, and incest portrayed in the book.

The biggest question of them all is what value, if any, these sorts of bans serve. Since it is not common practice these days, in either Canada or the States, to ban most fiction outright, does banning a particular book from a school keep the kids away from it, or does it merely peak their curiosity all the more?

For those curious to get a sense of the global scope and the breadth of material that has been challenged over the last century plus, Wikipedia has compiled a list of Books Banned by Government over the years. You can find it here.

FURTHER READING of books you might not have known that have been banned in recent years:

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

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