Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Banned Books Week

Sometimes we take our freedom to read for granted. United States citizens work hard to protect and defend our constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech—the right to read or publish whatever we’d like—and it’s important to remember that not every country has these rights.

However, there are many times when our free-speech rights are challenged, sometimes resulting in the banning of material certain censors consider dangerous, obscene, or otherwise threatening to the common good. That’s why, in 1982, the American Library Association teamed up with the American Booksellers Association and other organizations of journalists, publishers, librarians and authors to create Banned Books Week.

Banned Books Week oranizers seeks to draw attention to issues of censorship by showcasing the books most often challenged in school libraries, public libraries, book stores, publishing houses, and anywhere else where unpopular ideas might cause trouble.

Each year, the ALA compiles a
list of the top ten most challenged books. There are lots of current titles on the list in recent years, including The Hunger Games and even Captain Underpants, but problems with book censorship are nothing new. Many well-known books from decades past continue to be challenged by censors and concerned community members to this day, including notorious titles like:

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Twain’s story of a young Mississippi boy’s attempt to assist a runaway slave was first banned in 1885, the year it was published. The Library Committee of Concord, Massachusetts agreed to remove the book from the public library, criticizing its bad language and poor grammar. A New York Times editorial of the day applauded the decision, calling Twain’s book “trashy and vicious.”

Twain himself responded with mock concern about the controversy, “It has started a number of hitherto spotless people to reading Huck Finn…people who had not heard of him before; people whose morals will go to wreck and ruin now.”

Despite the book’s growing reputation as a literary masterpiece, Huck Finn continued to inspire demands for its censorship. As the civil rights movement emerged in the 1950s, the NAACP condemned the book as racist for its portrayal of the slave Jim, which they considered a negative stereotype. Twain’s use of racial epithets is the most common complaint among those hoping to ban his classic novel.

Huckleberry Finn consistently remains one of the most challenged books in America.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

Topping the ALA list of most-challenged books for several years, the enormously popular Harry Potter series has been accused of being anti-family, promoting witchcraft, and featuring gratuitous violence. One Catholic school principal in Rockford, Illinois said the books were “contrary to the teachings of the Catholic church” by promoting astrology, and had them removed from the school library in 2000.

But elsewhere that year, a parent-teacher partnership in Zeeland, Michigan worked to cancel a Harry Potter ban, allowing the celebrated boy wizard back into the classroom after the books had been cast out by the school superintendent. Mary Dana and Nancy Zennie were honored for the efforts as “Banned Book Week Heroes” at the Library of Congress later that year. Turns out some spells can be reversed.

Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler

Here’s a case where a book being un-banned causes a lot of worry. Adolph Hitler’s infamous, anti-Semitic screed has been called the most hated book in the world. In it, Hitler proposed the ideas about German expansion and Aryan purity that led to the Nazi party’s rise and the horrors of World War II.

For seventy years, the state of Bavaria held the copyright to Mein Kampf, which allowed them to maintain a complete ban on publishing the book throughout Germany. In 2015, that copyright expired, allowing publishers the right to once again publish Hitler’s manifesto. The Institute of Contemporary History in Munich published a new, heavily-annotated edition of the work, leading to much public debate about the pros and cons of having Hitler’s racist ideology available to the general public. That edition sold out within hours of its release.

Though the spread of Nazism has been outlawed in Germany since the end of WWII, other publishers—including modern-day Nazis­­—now have the legal right to publish Mein Kampf, with or without the historical context of annotations. Is this a good idea? Is this a case of victory for free speech or a dangerous book let loose upon the world? Are there ever good reasons to ban a book?

You can explore these important questions during Banned Books Week at the SCC Library. Check out our selection of infamous banned books and decide for yourself if they are mind-expanding classics or dangers to society!

Works Cited