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What We’re Reading {October 1 2010}

In celebration of Banned Books Week, I have focused this week’s “What We’re Reading” on, no surprise, banned books.

The first known record of banned books is The Index of Prohibited Books, developed by Pope Paul IV, intended to protect Catholics from controversial ideas. Since that time many lists have been developed around the world as various groups have tried to censor authors and prevent the publication of works the groups objected to. The good news, for us, is that many authors have found ways around censorship by publishing their books in other countries.

One of the most well-known authors, who published his books in a country other than his own, is Salman Rushdie. While Rushdie’s novels don’t make the Top Ten list, he is one of my favorite authors, and two of his books are my favorite Banned Books: The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children. Most of his written works are set on the Indian subcontinent. His style is generally classified as magical realism mixed with historical fiction. A common thread amongst all of his works is the connections, disruptions and migrations between the Eastern and Western worlds.

In my opinion, he is a phenomenal writer. He is so descriptive and detailed, and his word choices are so beautiful, it is easy to get lost for hours in his books. Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, quickly became the center of a major controversy drawing protests from many Muslims. Some of the protests were quite violent, and death threats to Rushdie’s life became a regular occurrence. The most serious threat was a fatwa against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran, in February 1989. The fatwa announced that all devout Muslims must kill Salman Rushdie. The Satanic Verses has been challenged almost every year since its publication for blasphemous views and for presenting a prophet (Mohammad) in an unfavorable light. To date all of Rushdie’s novels have been challenged or banned.

Whether for political reasons, religious reasons, or other reasons, books continue to be challenged and banned each year. What are your favorite banned books? Do you think they were fairly challenged or banned? What do you think about the process of banning books? Share your thoughts with us, and then download a Banned Book from the Bookshare special collection – The ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.

Top Ten Banned Books

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – This book, written by Mark Twain, has been banned in many different places since it was published. Initially the book was banned for its use of slang; over time the focus has shifted towards the fact that the book uses the “n” word more than 200 times. When this book is read aloud, the “n” word is often replaced with the word “slave” or “servant.” Despite great controversy, this book is a fantastic piece of literature and tops high school required reading lists across the country.
  2. Candide – Candide is a classic French novel that satirizes all things that many view as sacred – churches, philosophers, armies, and rulers. Candide parodies the philosophy of optimism, which states that because God created the world, and God is perfect, everything in the world is perfect. This tale is a fantastic journey that takes Candide and friends around the world, and through several lifetimes. This book is a regular on postsecondary required reading lists.
  3. Harry Potter Series – Perhaps a surprise to some, each book in the Harry Potter series has been challenged and/or banned. The series tells the story of Harry Potter, a young wizard, and his friends Ron and Hermione. Central to each of the books is a common theme, a struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort who killed Harry’s parents. This book has been challenged and banned because of its witchcraft, violence, the occult, for being “scary”; because of themes of lying, cheating, stealing, ghosts, and promoting Wicca beliefs. The series is regularly read by 5th graders through postsecondary students. Each book is part of the Accelerated Reader program and often appears on summer reading lists.
  4. Catcher in the Rye – Written by J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye became a best seller within weeks of its publication in 1951. The novel chronicles three days in the life of a 16-year old, extremely troubled boy. It’s a classic tale of teenage angst and rebellion, and many of the challenges to this book have centered on the fear that young people will look up to Holden, the main character and try to emulate him. The book was first challenged in 1960 when a school principal fired a teacher for using the novel as part of an 11th grade class, saying that it was “anti-white,” and put too great an emphasis on slang, sex, violence, and challenged morals. Today, Catcher in the Rye, can be found on many required high school reading lists across the country.
  5. Lolita – Written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955, Lolita explores the mind of a highly intelligent, self-loathing man named Humber Humbert. Humbert is a pedophile and has an obsession with “nymphets,” or young girls. Soon after publication it was banned in France, South Africa, New Zealand, England and Argentina. The book has been challenged in the U.S., but never banned. The book was challenged and/or banned for likely obvious reasons, primarily the portrayal of a sexual relationship between a child and an adult. This book is often required reading for postsecondary students, especially those studying Literature, Psychology and Sociology.
  6. 1984 – First published in 1949, 1984, written by George Orwell, depicts a particularly grim future of society. A society with no free will, truth, or privacy. The book was banned immediately upon its release because of its “bleak warning of totalitarian government and censorship.” Censorship. Need I point out the irony there? Many still see the novel as one that expresses immoral themes and pro-communism. 1984 explores the idea of “Big Brother,” an ideal that is extremely popular in culture today, and likely one of the reasons this book continues to appear on high school required reading lists.
  7. Brave New World – In 1932 Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World. The book centers on a theme of a boring, dull, drugged, and unmotivated mass society. The book is set in the future, and many challenge that it provides little hope for generations to come, so little in fact that has become a main reason the book continues to be challenged. The reality is that Brave New World is a parody of a Utopian society, and a rather fascinating read. Brave New World is a postsecondary level book, ideal for mature readers.
  8. To Kill A Mockingbird – Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was quite popular, has been said to be a classic of modern American fiction, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Well known for the authors ability to deal with serious issues, such as racism, rape and loss of innocence, with humor and warmth, this book is continually challenged because of how it deals with issues of race, sexuality, and derogatory terms. This book also makes it to the top of a great many high school required reading lists across the country.
  9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – An autobiography of the early life of Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings looks at how trauma and race can be overcome by strength and a love of literature. Throughout the novel the themes of racism, violence, and homosexuality, as well as rape and sexual abuse. For those reasons the book is regularly challenged and has been banned. For postsecondary Literature, Psychology and Sociology majors, this book makes a regular appearance on required reading lists.
  10. The Color Purple – In The Color Purple, Alice Walker depicts the life of a young black girl, Celie, who speaks about her life in letters to God. The story walks us through Celie’s life; we learn that she has been raped by her stepfather, beaten by her husband, and is ultimately alone. The Color Purple explores life in the deep south through the eyes of a black female. The Color Purple has been banned because of extreme and graphic violence, racism, African history, human sexuality, and man’s relationship with God. The Color Purple can be found on a number of middle school and high school required reading lists.

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