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Banned Books Week 2020: Introduction to Banned Books

On October 1st, the Student College, Academic, and Research Libraries Association (SCARLA) and the Library and Information Science Student Association (LISSA) here at Rutgers held a virtual banned books “read-in.” Our own Jennifer Coffman was a lead organizer, and the rest of the team here at Books We Read joined students, faculty, and staff for short readings from banned books and a series of “lightning talks” related to issues of censorship. That stimulating event (thanks again, Jenny!) got us thinking about banned books, and so we’re posting a series of reflections from Books We Read team members and friends who were in attendance. Each of us will be posting on a different subject, and so this post is a brief introduction to the issue of banned books and some of the topics that came out of the discussion last Thursday. A disclaimer: this is a broad overview, and I’m not an expert. If you’re particularly interested in the topic, there are wonderful books out there!

covert artIt’s tempting to try and sort banned books into categories based on the grounds for the ban or challenge: indecency or political subversion. To take two examples from 1850s America: some books, like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (which Julie Rossano read from), are challenged because they are considered obscene; others, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are challenged because they criticize those in power. However, because the question of taste can itself be political, this distinction between indecency and subversion doesn’t always hold up.

For instance, James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, which I chose to read from, was banned in New Orleans and caught the attention of the FBI for its frank depictions of homosexuality and interracial sex. It’s difficult and maybe pointless to try and disentangle the objections to the sex itself from the objections to the characters having it; the charge of indecency comes wrapped in political assumptions about whose sexuality counts as “normal” or “perverse.” cover artAs Nancy Kranich’s talk observed, many of the books challenged today in the United States (and many of those read at the event) were written to introduce LGBTQ issues to young people; critics object that such material is inappropriate for young readers, but the question of whether a same-gender love story is less “appropriate” than a straight one or a trans coming-of-age story is less “appropriate” than a cis one is itself political. Books are frequently challenged in schools for depictions of racism as well, but those that promote racism (Gone With the Wind), those that challenge it (To Kill a Mockingbird), and those that arguably do both (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) frequently wind up caught in the same net, as Marc Aronson’s talk observed – here a restriction on what’s decent to depict can wind up narrowing the possibilities of what can be discussed.

Why study censorship? There are a few reasons. First, censorship has actually shaped literary history, lending a thrill of the forbidden to challenged works and spurring DIY publication tactics like the zines of Art Librarian Megan Lotts’ presentation. In my own period, the early eighteenth century, scholars have suggested that libel laws actually helped spur the development of narrative fiction by encouraging authors to write about imagined characters rather than real (and potentially litigious) individuals. Second, censorship can often provide a window into the anxieties of the censoring authorities. Another Country was banned in Australia in part because censors feared that readers might connect the novel’s unflinching portrayal of American race relations to Australia’s own oppression of its Aboriginal population. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was banned in the Soviet bloc, meanwhile, because the allegory of a barnyard revolution hijacked by a regime of self-serving pigs who hollow out its utopian promises hit too close to home. If the shoe fits, wear it; if the book fits, ban it.

cover artThat last example comes from Judit Ward’s talk about Cold War samizdat, which brings us to the third reason to study censorship: to remind ourselves of what we have to lose. Judit’s native Hungary, possessed of a vibrant literary culture and a non-Slavic language, was not insulated from Soviet censorship which, suddenly, after the 1956 failed revolt and crackdown, became worse. Authors and publishers could be fined, jailed, or exiled for deviating from the regime’s ever-narrower orthodoxy or pointing out its failures, as author and social worker György Konrád did in The Case Worker. Totalitarians suppress books for the same reasons that they repeat blatant lies: as historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt observed, the point is not primarily to deceive but to assert control, to demonstrate that they can compel assent no matter the truth or merit of the official line. In the fable of the emperor’s new clothes, the emperor’s power lies in the silence of his subjects, afraid to say what they all can see. Banned Books Week reminds us that in the face of such naked assertions of power, we – particularly librarians and others entrusted with keeping and distributing texts – must use the right to a free press or lose it.

Read other posts for Banned Books Week 2020: