I've been rereading my favorite books lately--some that I haven't picked up since high school--and enjoying them all over again. I'm not sure if it's because now I'm a married woman but some of them seem to be a lit-tle bit juicier the second time around. I guess I must have been clueless about half of what was going on but at any rate the whole thing got me thinking about how so many of my favorite books have been banned at one point or another for a variety or reasons.
You'd be surprised at what gets kicked off the shelves--though a few of these haven't been banned outright but were merely challenged.
1. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. I don't know if you've read other books by William Steig but a lot of them are . . . odd. Shrek is one of his creations and let me just say that the movie is an improvement but I really like this little picture book about a donkey that finds a magic pebble and accidentally wishes himself into a rock. Oops.
It was banned in several U.S. cities because the police are pigs. Literally. Sylvester's a donkey and the cops are pigs which shows how dense I am because I never caught the joke--if you can call that a joke. Apparently there were people who found that offensive enough to ban the book so children reading it wouldn't be influenced by a work of fiction showing disrespect for law enforcement and be turned to a life of crime. You know, seems like I saw a government study showing how drastically crime has risen since the book's publication . . .
2. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. This is the one I'm currently reading--though it's possible that by the time this post goes live I may have been sitting up all night to finish it and slurp up every exciting tidbit--with Andrew out of town there's no telling how late I will stay up.
It's a historical romance novel set in 17th century England with Amber St. Clare (what a name) as the main character/tramp. While banning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble might be funny, I can see how this 1944 saga got itself into a bit of trouble--the lovely heroine hops from bed to bed to bed and though you recognize how trashy she is you can't help but root for her (in her defense it's not as if there were a lot of professional options open to women three hundred years ago, especially once they'd been ill-used).
It's a 20th century version of Moll Flanders (another fun banned book) and according to Wikipedia "Fourteen states banned [Forever Amber] as pornography. The first was Massachusetts, whose attorney general cited 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men as reasons for banning the novel." Sounds as if he enjoyed the book pretty thoroughly doesn't it? Quite literally banned in Boston.
Funny thing is, I couldn't remember anything that happened in it from my first reading so it's as if I'm reading it new all over again. While there is a promiscuous plot line it's pretty tame by today's standards--I doubt it would get a PG-13 rating if filmed just as it is written. Go Amber!
3. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. This novella is my favorite work by Steinbeck and it has been challenged by school boards since its publication because of vulgar language, racism, violence and "not representing traditional values." You might think this happened 50 years ago but no, that occurred in 2005 in Illinois. Maybe someone woke up, figured that this 1937 work bore the responsibility for the moral decay, Communism and poor grammar of the past seventy years and decided to suddenly do something about it.
I find it interesting when a book is challenged because it portrays racism. Why is racism something that should be prettied over? Unfortunately it's part of our history and is a viable force in many people's lives so to pretend that it doesn't exist--or never existed--is not only illogical but dangerous, echoing that "they who do not study history are doomed to repeat it" sentiment. I've never understood why a book with a "mature" theme whether it's racism, adultery, treason or murder should be automatically forbidden--it entirely depends on what the books says about the theme. You can't find a book with more adultery than Anna Karenina but Tolstoy hardly glamorizes it, just the opposite in fact, and because of its subject matter I find his masterpiece one of the most tragic and moral books there are. Just an opinion.
4. Lord of the Flies. I read this my sophomore year of high school and it's one of the few books from that period of my life that I can still recall in vivid detail. It was an exciting book and our teacher presented it in a way that sparked debate and conversation and taught us about political philosophy and human nature.
Unfortunately it has been very popular with the censors and has made the list of most banned books of the 20th century though I had a hard time nailing down exactly what it was they objected too. The best I could come up with was that it said ugly things about us as a race. I guess someone didn't feel it was constructive criticism.
5. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. I feel sheepish allowing Rowling the honor of being included on a list alongside Steinbeck and Golding (her books should really be considered glamorized screen plays) but darn it, I enjoyed them and it bugs me that they've been banned here and protested there.
From what I understand the argument is that they portray witchcraft. Is talking about wizards the same thing as talking about witchcraft? Seems to me there's a difference but besides this gap in reasoning I've wondered why--if the books are so dangerous--those who want to get them pulled off the shelves can't produce a sample of the population who has supposedly been turned to the dark side through Harry Potter. Surely, if these books really are as dangerous as some are claiming, there must be a bunch of people one could turn to as proof that Harry Potter is an evil influence. Anyone? You know, kind of a Catcher in the Rye-Mark David Chapman kind of thing.
6. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I was just about to say "Well if you're going to ban Harry Potter for having magic then you ought to take out The Wizard of Oz, Half Magic, A Wrinkle in Time, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Odyssey and Lord of the Rings" but then I got to the next entry on the list and what do you know? They did ban it!
Supposedly (and I haven't confirmed this so you might take it with a grain of salt) in 2001 in Alamagordo, New Mexico LOTR was burned along with other books deemed inappropriate. With all the bad things going on in the world, with all the injustice and evil left to fight it makes me shake my head to think that someone felt that by burning this particular book they were making the world a safer place. I guess they were picking their battles. "Low hanging fruit" as they say?
7. Tess of the D'urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. This isn't really surprising because all of Hardy's works were published in Victorian times so I've always assumed that they all offended those carefully-guarded English eyes.
They're all about unhappy people making unhappy choices and they all end up--interestingly enough--unhappy. But they have great names: Eustacia Vye, Tess Durbeyfield, Bathsheba Everdene, Diggory Venn, Tamsin Yeobright, Arabella Donn, Damon Wildeve--with names like that his characters are obviously doomed to a very dramatic destruction.
Anyway, Tess is seduced by a man posing as her cousin and when she bears his child she's ruined. She finds true love later but this new perfect guy doesn't know her past--what will happen if she tells him? Will Tess marry Angel? (yes, that's her man's name) Will he forgive her her past? Inquiring minds want to know.
8. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. If stories of unwed mothers don't shock you then maybe you'll get a jolt out of Hardy's last novel (he just wasn't getting the hint about toning down the subject matter was he?)
Jude is tricked into marrying Arabella. Jude is unhappy. So Jude leaves Arabella and finds another named Sue who has left her own unhappy marriage. They unionize (so to speak) and produce six children but not without a great deal of guilt and trauma which finally results in their oldest child killing the other children before hanging himself to ease his parents' difficulties. However, despite their child's ironic intentions Jude and Sue feel this does not help their difficulties and is instead God's judgment come against them so the two break up, dying broken-hearted in the end.
Now what's there to object to in that I ask?
But I do love Thomas Hardy--he's just about my favorite and I feel sad that the book produced enough backlash to drive him from literature (so the story goes). He ended up writing poetry instead. I'm sure that really cheered him up--I mean I know so many happy, cheerful, non-depressed poets.
9. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I remember this one fanning the flames of my young heart back in high school but I didn't really remember it having anything worthy of being cast from the library shelves. Shows how much I know because it was banned in Anaheim, California in 1984 for using the word "nigger." I'd be curious to know if anyone else finds this baffling--slavery, bigotry and race hatred just don't seem like something that should be forgotten or hushed up. Reminds me of those who want to claim the Holocaust never happened.
Besides I don't think that Gone with the Wind is exactly the rallying cry for neo-Nazi or Aryan hate groups, they've got their own pamphlets and reading material I hear so I'd imagine once again, the power of this novel to lead people astray is pretty minimal. All I remember is reading the book, loving it completely, recognizing that Scarlet was a fascinating, nasty woman with few morals except to survive at all costs and that life back then was tough--but most especially if you were black.
10. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Before I did this list I had the false impression that book burning was a thing of the 1950s that came and went with McCarthyism and Black Lists and Red Scares. Oh how wrong I was. Seems that back in 2002--a mere six years ago--this book was challenged in Cromwell (coincidence?) Connecticut on the grounds that it promotes witchcraft and violence. Did they even read the book? I find it ironic that this Newberry Award winner, one of the best children's books ever written which has survived almost fifty years of publication (through Joseph McCarthy himself) finally was called to the mat by the Crowmwell School District. If only they'd discovered the dangers sooner they'd have been able to save all those millions of kids such as myself who grew up loving this book from a life of pain and suffering.
It makes me wonder if those who spend their time crusading against books like this have even been to the movies recently. I could be wrong but seems to me that some of the latest trailers I saw were a bit more violent than anything Speare came up with. No one seems to be protesting those.
11. Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. Perhaps it should be called Madame Ovary instead given all the adultery going on in those pages but once again, just as I said with Anna Karenina, it's not the subject matter so much as the way the subject matter is treated that makes a difference to me. Anyone reading how Madame Bovary destroys herself and those around her would be hard-pressed to say this book paints a pretty picture of infidelity and as I recall even the Bible has a thing or two to say about the subject. It's all in how the act is presented that makes the difference.
12. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Kind of an old-fashioned soap opera with mistaken identities, illegitimate children and lost/found fortunes. I suppose it goes against my previous sentence claiming tone is the definer of what is bad and good because Mr. Jones kind of romps through life without much responsibility or penalty for his *ahem* "friendliness." But if it is a soap opera it's the most euphemistic, vague and ambiguous soap opera I've ever seen. You have to be pretty up on 19th century English slang to get most of what's going on.
13. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. And I leave you with a laugh. The Lorax was supposedly challenged in 1989 by the Laytonville, California Unified School District because the book “criminalizes the forest industry.”
I'm not a huge fan of the book because even as a kid I felt as if it was shoving a message down my throat--ditto for the The Sneeches and The Butter Battle--just because I was young doesn't mean I didn't know what a metaphor was and kids don't necessarily like to feel like they're in school when they're reading a picture book. Nonetheless I'm trying to visualize the person who felt they'd be able to sleep better at night knowing that one less child would be subjected to the evils of Dr. Seuss' political leanings.
Strange people out there folks, strange people.
And if books aren't your thing you might try your hand at movies--here's a puzzle to see how well you know your cinema. Guess the movie from the typeface on the poster. How many can you name?
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