Not long after we moved to Austin, Texas, the well-respected suburban school district of Round Rock banned Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I hadn’t yet read the book but went out and bought a copy immediately just to see what the fuss was about.
What I discovered was a book of rare beauty, aching pathos, and redemption. Shortly thereafter I decided to do a little research into the history of book banning, which predates the invention of the moveable type by centuries. What became clear is that there have always been people in society who are so afraid of the power of ideas that they try to destroy the ideas by destroying the evidence that anyone had the ideas.
For librarians, the notion of censorship is especially ugly. So, shortly after beginning my research into banned books, I consulted two close friends, both of whom were librarians. After our conversations and their help gathering resources on the subject, I decided that a seminary, a place where education and faith meet, is a great place to tackle the issue. So I formed the Banned Book Club.
The plan was simple. We would select one book a month to read and discuss, but it had to be a book that had been banned somewhere in the United States. We gave preference to those books that had been banned in several places. Our first book was Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” because it was in the local news. Interested students and staff of the seminary signed up for the book club. And we read some great books.
I circulated a list of the one hundred most frequently banned books, and, after I kicked things off with Maya Angelou, members of the club suggested the books we would read. One of the most memorable was Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, which provided one of the most compelling conversations I have ever participated in about nature and the nature of morality.
Let me give you an idea of the kinds of books that have been banned. Based on the research done by the American Library Association, the following are among the one hundred most frequently “challenged” (their word for books which a group has demanded to have removed from the shelves of schools and libraries):
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee.
The Color Purple, Alice Walker.
Ulysses, James Joyce.
Beloved, Toni Morrison.
The Lord of the Flies, William Golding.
1984, George Orwell.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov.
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley.
Animal Farm, George Orwell.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway.
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner.
A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison.
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison.
I am celebrating Banned Books Week by reading Dorian Lynskey, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. Lynskey’s book places Orwell’s work in the context of world and literary history, and in the context of Orwell’s own evolving thought as demonstrated in the columns and essays he was writing in addition to his two classics, Animal Farm and 1984.
It is fascinating to have a front row seat to Orwell’s intellectual development at a time in history when words like “nationalism” were coming into common use in the political world. One of his finest essays, “Notes on Nationalism,” contrasts patriotism, which Orwell says is a deep, positive, sometimes even unconscious, feeling of affection for one’s country with nationalism which is an ideology, a “power hunger tempered by self-deception.”
The banning of books is a strongly reactionary impulse, but neither the political left nor the right has had a monopoly on book banning. This is a fact brought home a few years ago with the rise of what are known as “trigger warnings” and “safe places” in the academic world. The assumption is that the trauma in our lives should be respected in the classroom by guaranteeing that we are not surprised, shocked or offended by ideas or words that may stir up our own deep, dark, terrifying and traumatized memories. Thus, some books, ideas and words have been deemed too dangerously powerful to mention, unless we warn people ahead of time that they are coming so they can avoid the discussion.
Not too long ago, Neil Gaiman, an author who, like Ray Bradbury, has a real gift for exploring our nightmares and for challenging us to go ahead and look under our beds in the middle of the night to find out if a monster really does live there, wrote a book titled, Trigger Warning: Short Stories and Disturbances. In the introduction to the book, he asks the question: “Are fictions safe places?” “Should they be safe places?”
Gaiman concludes that fiction at its best moves us out of our comfort zones in order to help us understand ourselves and the world around us better. But he also realizes that given the current “ideology of safety” in some college classrooms, this means that many books will be made off-limits by placing warnings on them. Thus, he decided, tongue in cheek, to beat them to the punch. He writes: “There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you. There is death and pain in here, tears and discomfort, violence of all kinds, cruelty, even abuse. There is kindness too, I hope, sometimes. Even a handful of happy endings…. Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.”
This week Margaret Renkl wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times reporting on a Roman Catholic Priest in Nashville who demanded that all of the Harry Potter books be removed from their parish’s Catholic school. He said he had consulted exorcists in the United States and in Rome and determined that reading the books aloud could cause demons to be called forth. Not only is it obvious that neither the priests nor the exorcists have bothered actually to read J. K. Rowling’s series of children’s books, he has missed the point of novels in the first place. Renkl says that the point of great literature isn’t didactic, it is imaginative. We are absorbed, delighted, provoked to think, and to feel in novels. Indeed, as she notes, people who read novels consistently score much higher than the general public on empathy and altruism. The good priest might want to reevaluate his position, given the fact that avid readers seem to be cultivating love for others while they read.
Which is precisely what the members of our Banned Book Club observed years ago. We found that not only our imaginations were quickened, but our interest in others, our ability to place ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, as Scout’s father Atticus tells her to try to do in To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that has upset so many people it has been challenged, banned, and removed from classrooms and school libraries in almost every corner of our country. By the way, it has changed a lot of minds for the better too.