It’s Banned Books Week 2011, “the thirtieth annual celebration of the freedom to read.” We are so fortunate that this freedom is guaranteed to us by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, for the threat of censorship—well-intentioned and not—is as alive and well as ever. I hope you will take time this week to consider how the freedom to read what you choose enriches your life.
In keeping with the theme, this month’s Last Monday Book is 120 Banned Books – Censorship Histories of World Literature, by Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald, and Dawn B. Sova (2005). I have to confess, I did not read all four-hundred-eighty-something pages, but this is a fascinating book for browsing. The 120 titles are categorized according to the grounds for suppression—political, religious, social, and the like. Each entry is introduced by title, author, publisher, original date and place of publication, and literary form. The book and its censorship history are then summarized.
Many of the titles are no doubt as familiar to you as they are to me—books such as Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse-Five, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But The Analects of Confucius…? I had no idea that in 213 B.C., the Emperor of China “ordered Confucian books burned and threatened to execute anyone who dared to quote them.” As if that weren’t bad enough, the next year, “460 Confucian scholars were buried alive.”
In a less tragic but particularly ironic example of literary censorship, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, wherein books are burned to keep society ignorant and happy, was “expurgated and marketed by the publisher that way for thirteen years” without the author’s knowledge. Over 75 passages were modified and two were removed in the "special edition" sold to high schools.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the silliness of Captain Underpants, the poetry of Whitman and Ginsberg, innumerable religious and political texts—the written word has come under fire for hundreds of years and hundreds of reasons. 120 Banned Books is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to understand more about the social and historical contexts in which many of our most famous written works have been challenged and/or banned.
For Banned Books Week, I’m rereading The Catcher in the Rye, which is one of the last half-century’s most frequently challenged books. Are you reading a banned book this week?