It’s sort of a strange title: “Banned Books Week”—it could easily be misinterpreted to mean that it represents support for banned books. That’s not what it means, of course. The title draws attention to books that have been banned in the past and books that are banned (or seriously challenged, at least) now.
Words in a written form—be they books, plays, lyrics, or anything else one may think of—have been banned, challenged, or destroyed for seemingly as long as there has been written text. Lysistrata, written by playwright Aristophanes around 411 BCE was looked upon with a gimlet eye by Greek authorities because of its subversive overtones. It was banned (again!) under the Comstock Law of 1873 for “lewdness.” (This probably tells us all we need to know about both the ancient Greeks and Anthony Comstock – the Greeks didn’t think it particularly lewd and Comstock didn’t think it particularly subversive.) Other books shared the fate of Lysistrata under the Comstock Law; classics such as The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights, and Moll Flanders, to name just a few.
And let us not forget Mr. Thomas Bowdler who developed expurgated versions of all of Shakespeare’s plays and published them in a volume called The Family Shakespeare. He also expurgated Edward Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; one wonders what could be so scandalous that it needed expurgating. At any rate, the verb bowdlerize is associated with censorship of books, plays, and anything else that might have a hint of the vulgar that requires removing “for our own good.”
Books such as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, published in 1856, and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published in 1928, were banned ostensibly on the grounds of overt sexuality or obscenity. Lady Chatterley is remarkably frank for its time and undoubtedly upset people—however what likely bothered people even more is the sympathetic portrayal of women who do not conform to what was expected of them. The argument of obscenity is the reason provided to ban these books, but not necessarily the real reason.
The American Library Association compiles lists of the most commonly banned or challenged book titles. Their most current list is from 2017 and almost all of the titles included are books that are used in schools as reading assignments or that are in the school library. The reasons cited for removal of these titles most often is that they are anti-family or sexually explicit. The top 10 are:
- Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
- Drama, Raina Telgemeier
- The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
- George, Alex Gino
- Sex is a Funny Word, Corey Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
- A Tango Make Three, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole
- I am Jazz, Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
The fact of the matter is that reading a piece of literature, whether one likes the piece of literature or not, opens the mind to a larger world. If it’s a well-written piece of literature, the reader becomes a part of it and the reader may empathize with or despise the characters or subject matter. Maybe the reader is conflicted and both empathizes with and despises the characters. But that’s really the whole point. The reader gets to decide.