“Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us” is the theme of Banned Books Week 2022, observed from September 18 to 24 this year. Committed to intellectual freedom, Books We Read joins the American Library Association’s annual event, which has brought together the entire book community to support the freedom “to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”
Banning books has long been practiced as a form of censorship for various reasons, mostly falling into two categories over time: indecency or political subversion, although in greater variety. One of my most memorable encounters with banned books takes me back to the “Samizdat” era in the early 1980s in communist Hungary, when a samizdat translation of Animal Farm by a translator with a pen name Zúz Tamás (roughly “crushed by others”) was published in 1984, barely escaping the secret police. Although Orwell’s name was mentioned in a collection of English essays edited in 1963, no text by the author was published until the communist system collapsed in 1989. Censorship during that time would affect political taboos such as criticism of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union, the single party system and, ironically, the existence of censorship.
Interestingly, although pessimism or “decadence” in a book was the second main cause of rejection, books such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar were published in multiple editions in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively, in brilliant translations. At the same time, although on high school reading lists in the United States for those lucky to have been given the freedom to read, these books had been challenged and banned multiple times along with other classics listed by the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Another memorable banned book for me is The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, a memoir “about the author’s unconventional, poverty-stricken upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents, one a frustrated artist and the other a brilliant alcoholic” – as summarized in the first bibliotherapy-themed guide for our ALA-funded “Reading for Recovery” project in 2015-2016. The project was inspired by our reader’s advisory initiative in the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies Library, where we discovered, based on simple metrics, that certain books in the collection circulated more often than others, with The Glass Castle on the top of the list. Even though various staff members felt differently about the book, there was a consensus that similar titles, listed as read-alikes, can be used to promote reading for healing among people with substance use and their loved ones.
Listed as #9 on the Top Banned Books in 2012 out of 464 challenges recorded, The Glass Castle didn’t make a great first impression on me at all, probably because of my high expectations after reading raving reviews. However, the audiobook, narrated by the author herself, made a huge difference. Voices of diversity, audiobooks have been a game changer for many of us strapped for (reading) time due to other commitments or vision issues. Listening to The Glass Castle ten years later not only bolstered my lifelong practice of re-visiting some books from time to time, but also confirmed the choice of the book as the highlight of the Reading for Recovery project.
Challenging a book related to child abuse for its language is pathetic. A book that starts with a three-year-old girl burning a large part of her body because she’s cooking a hotdog for herself on the gas stove. Or where a five-year-old defends her drunk father as “When my daddy passes out, he never pisses himself.” Or when a child’s birthday wish is that daddy should stop drinking. The language should match the story, whether it’s Bruce Willis walking on broken glass in Die hard (“Yippee-ki-yay, melon farmer” – seriously?) or a memoir from the perspective of a child with a heavy drinker father. The story is dark, disheartening, moreover, often devastating, heartbreaking, and true. There are millions of children living in poverty, hunger and distress, and literature must not turn a blind eye to them. Banning a book on this topic sounds like sweeping the issue under the rug.
“Children of alcoholics” is a Library of Congress Subject Heading with its own call number HV532 (in case someone chooses the privacy of browsing the shelves in the library as our users did in the Alcohol Library), a topic researched by socially conscious scholars and discussed by counselors across the school system.
The same applies to Sylvia Plath‘s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which was banned for its profanity and sexuality as well as its overt rejection of the woman’s role as wife and mother. I decided to re-read the book recently because of a new addition to the recreational reading collection, a fascinating story, part true, part fictive, entitled The last confessions of Sylvia P.: a novel by Lee Daniel Kravetz. Masterfully combining three storylines into a novel, he adds to the legend and growing body of literature on Plath, inspiring us to revisit this unique author. I did and never regretted it. Without any reference to contemporary external stressors such as social media, I believe The Bell Jar still speaks to broad audiences today providing perennial discussion topics on mental health.
Finally, as our guest of last Summer Tales, Carmen Maria Machado said about parents challenging her book In the dream house : a memoir, which describes domestic violence, psychological and emotional abuse in a queer relationship: “banning my book won’t protect your child.” Instead, how about using banned books as a parenting tool?
Banned or challenged books mentioned in the text
- Machado, C. M. (2020). In the dream house : a memoir (First Graywolf paperback.). Graywolf Press.
- Orwell, G. (1946). Animal farm. Harcourt, Brace and company.
- Plath, S. (1971). The bell jar ([1st U.S. ed.].). Harper & Row.
- Vonnegut, K. (2009). Slaughterhouse-five, or, The children’s crusade: a duty-dance with death. Dial Press.
- Walls, J. (2005). The glass castle: a memoir. Scribner.