So this week, from September 22 to September 28, is Banned Books Week, in which we celebrate the freedom to read what we want. It started in 1982 in America as a response to the amount of books being banned and challenged in schools, libraries and book stores around the country, and while it doesn’t seem to be an international event (so far as I can see), I think it’s a great cause that would be awesome to see celebrated here in Australia and around the world.
What stunned me was the amount of books I have read that have been banned or challenged, many of which are among my favourite books. Here are just a few on my shelves.
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: My favourite ever novel was banned in several places at different times throughout the 1970s, although each time was overturned. It seems in each case it was for different instances of swearing or offensive language throughout the novel, which there really isn’t that many of and which in many cases was very contextual – it seems they just saw the word and banned it without any real consideration for why it was there. I guess there’s a reason why it isn’t banned so much these days.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The ever popular classic, and probably this author’s most loved work, this novel has been banned and challenged many times since its release almost a century ago. Why? Mostly for bad language (which is hilariously tame compared to what most young people hear these days) and sexual references (but no actual sex). It is explained a little better on this website here.
- 1984 by George Orwell: Perhaps the most important dystopian novel of all time, Orwell’s classic vision of the future from the 1940s has influenced not only most science fiction since then, but also has eerie parallels with how society has turned out. Many countries ban it for its political views, though the ideas of supreme censorship, mind control, the rewriting of history for political purposes, sexual repression and indeed most kinds of repression, are probably what makes most people uncomfortable.
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: I’ve always loved this novel as it is deeply thought-provoking. The idea of the main character becoming “unstuck in time” as a result of shell-shock from WWII, and the traumatic repeated reliving of his life, is supposed to make us question how we continue to make the same mistakes in our lives, and how we can alter that, and how we should learn from history to ensure that we stop making those mistakes. Yet it has been banned for swearing and general vulgarity, anti-religious views, for being immoral, psychotic, and a whole host of other things. Again, it seems people don’t consider context as anything important when they make these decisions.
- Looking For Alaska by John Green: I wanted to include at least one newer book, and this one has caused quite the stir. It is commonly banned or challenged for offensive language, for being sexually explicit, and for being unsuited for that age group. Which is odd, because the language wasn’t that offensive, the sexually explicit scenes are to be honest something many people that age do go through and have done for many generations I am sure (and they’re not that bad – it’s no 50 Shades, that’s for sure), and unsuited for that age group? It’s aimed at older teenagers. It’s perfect for that age group. Honestly, since when did people become so delicate, and more importantly, so naïve about what young people do? On top of this, this book doesn’t promote this behaviour but serves as a very strong warning against it. Again, context is so important.
It seems the reasons why most books are banned are always similar – offensive language or offensive ideas, at least to the people who are doing the actual banning. But many of the most important ideas from literature have been controversial at first, and many of the books have become some of the most loved and influential books of all time. I’m not saying I love every banned book ever – I’ve read some over the years that are complete rubbish and that I think are only popular because they were banned – but there is something intriguing about ideas that are so powerful they initially make people uncomfortable. And, as I have discovered, many books are banned because contextual details seem to just be ignored or overlooked, which as a writer and English teacher I find completely baffling.
For more information:
What are your favourite books that have made any of these banned book lists? What are your thoughts on why they were banned?