Banned Books Week: Censorship is Alive and Well and Living in America

By James Hayman

From September 24th to October 1st the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association and a number of other like-minded organizations are sponsoring something called Banned Books Week: A Celebration of the Freedom to Read.  During that week hundreds of bookstores and libraries around the country will be putting up displays and hosting events to call attention to the continuing problem of censorship in America. As writers and readers I believe we should all support their efforts.

In spite of our supposedly sacrosanct first amendment protections, the tradition of censoring and banning books in America has a long and ignoble history.

In 1873 the US Congress passed the Comstock Act which made it illegal to send obscene materials through the mail. Since publishers used the mail to ship books to booksellers, Comstock and later a number of other state and local statutes, effectively put the kibosh on any printed material deemed by those in power to be obscene. Among the books that were “banned in Boston” were James Joyce’s Ulysses, DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

 When I was a teenager attending a New England boarding school, I remember reading a contraband copy of Tropic of Cancer that had been smuggled into my dormitory. The book was passed from room to room where one boy after another breathlessly read Miller’s sexually charged prose, usually after “lights out” and almost always with the aid of a flashlight. I don’t think any of us were permanently damaged by the experience.

While most censorship statutes were eventually struck down by the Supreme Court as infringements on first amendment rights, censorship, most often at the dictate of local school boards, marches on.

It seems extraordinary (and more than a little quaint) to me that today, in the age of Internet, when virtually anything is available to just about anyone’s eyes at the click of a mouse, that schools and libraries around the country are still banning books.  And not just pornographic or salacious books either, but genuine classics like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Toni Morrison’s Beloved among others .

And while these books are at least arguably intended for mature audiences, many children’s classics have not been spared the censor’s steely gaze. Assigning Mark Twain’s Huck Finn as required reading in schools has been controversial for years, (usually because of its use of the so-called N word.) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which, as we all know, tell the story of a young wizard and his adventures in wizard school, have been opposed by some who find their focus on wizardry and magic religiously offensive.  And Katherine Paterson’s Newbery Award winner Bridge to Terabithia has been challenged as recommended reading by school boards all over the country (including Lincoln, Nebraska, Burlington, Connecticut, Apple Valley, California, Mechanicsburg, PA. and, closer to home, Medway, Maine) because of references to witchcraft and profanity, most notably the use of the phrases like “Oh Lord” and “Lord” as expletives.

To learn more about Banned Books Week, click on the link:


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5 Responses to Banned Books Week: Censorship is Alive and Well and Living in America

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Gerry here. After reading about the ongoing presidential campaigns, I shouldn’t be surprised that book-banning is alive and well. As the world shrinks, many of us react by wanting to block out anything that threatens or expands our world view. And what expands your world more than a book?
    Only solace is that banning a book is the best way to ensure it gets read. As Jim learned about Henry Miller, forbidden fruit is the sweetest.
    I’ve sometimes joked that the best way to boost sales would be for someone to picket a store where I’m doing a signing. Ah, PORT CITY BLACK AND WHITE. It’s a threat to family, society, our American values. Ban that book! Please!

  2. Ramona Long says:

    When I volunteered at the local high school, the librarian celebrated Banned Book Week with a huge display. She put up a sign that read (paraphrasing): “People don’t want you to read THESE books!” Of course, those books flew off the table.

    A few years ago, my high school banned the book Black Hawk Down because the language in it went against the school district’s policy for profanity. This was a true story about a tragic incident in war, and the soldiers were supposed to respond with “Oh gosh golly gee, those bad people are trying to kill me!”? I was embarrassed and infuriated, and responded by buying a copy of the book. I met the author, Mark Bowden, at an event and told him my alma mater had banned his book. He said it blew his mind, too–and to thank them for the extra sales.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Many of the books banned today are books written for children and young adults, and the argument is that our young people should not be exposed to issues (homosexuality, swearing, rape, violence, etc) that are in those books.(And certainly nowhere else in our culture.) It’s easy to agree. Especially if you haven’t read the books in question. Last time I checked the “most-banned” book, according to the American Library Association, which tracks such things, was “And Tango Makes Three,” a NONFICTION picture book about two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who “adopted” and raised a baby penguin who had no mother. Clearly a book that could destroy the moral fiber of young Americans …. Lea

  4. Russell Warnberg says:

    Jim, I sometimes wonder if this idea of book banning is overblown a bit. What one person might call banning, another might call making choices. Is a Librarian or book selection committee to be condemned when they don’t choose to buy a book for their school or library because of some concerns they have concerning its content. Are any and all books to be made available to all ages of children. Decisions need to be made and somebody needs to make them, so lets debate and argue the issue, but lets not label those that have concerns about the content of some books, as people who are in favor of banning books as though they are some evil entity. Just thinking aloud…

  5. No book has been banned in the USA for about half a century. Fanny Hill got that honor a long time ago. Challenged books in schools that are removed is different from banning. Setting aside that Banned Books Week is propaganda, the creator of BBW said:

    “On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn’t fit your material selection policy, get it out of there.”

    See: “Banned Books Week Propaganda Exposed by Progressive Librarian Rory Litwin; ALA Censors Out Criticism of Its Own Actions in a Manner Dishonest to the Core.”

    And Lea, that “most banned book”? And Tango Makes Three? It was only challenged 4 times last year. F-O-U-R per Y-E-A-R. And that TOPS the ALA list. Let’s be honest and say there is no crisis of book banning in the USA.

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