Library delves into banned books

Aug. 29, 2014 @ 04:13 PM

Somebody, somewhere doesn’t want you to read a certain book.

That book may be pornographic or racist or sacrilegious or offensive in some other way.

But do you have a right to read it?

Banning books in America goes back at least as far as an 1850 ban on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and is as recent as 21st century challenges to the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling.

Within that time span, different eras have seen different concerns about the suitability of reading materials.

On Wednesday, Perry Memorial Library displayed 12 books that were banned in the 1920s and offered some insights into reasons they were challenged.

The program was offered as one of a series of events to celebrate the library’s 90th birthday. National Banned Books Week will be observed Sept. 21 - 27.

Adult librarian Jennifer Brax introduced the topic and added, “I’ll be your banned books guide tonight.”

She listed reasons books are banned, including language, religion, violence, race, sexual situations and political views.

Melissa Abbott, a senior at Northern Vance High School, asked, “Who can ban a book?”

Brax made a distinction between banning a book and challenging a book.

“Anyone can challenge a book,” she said, and pointed out that banning takes place when an institution or the government responds to a challenge and makes the book unavailable to the public.

She listed some instances in which libraries or schools banned books.

Some of the books banned in the 1920s are well known for their controversial nature, including Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

“Darwin gets challenged every year,” Brax said.

It was thought to undermine religious teachings about the beginnings of the human race.

“Ulysses” was banned because of its sexual content.

The classic “The Arabian Nights” was considered to be obscene and was banned in the 1920s. The adventures of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad the Sailor were sandwiched between other stories that were thought to be a threat to the morals of American readers.

Classics of American literature also drew the attention of censors, including “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway and “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreisser.

Brax said “Gatsby” was a “truthful telling of life in the 1920s, a decadent life style.”

Even that favorite of young readers, Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” aroused the ire of some would-be protectors of the reading public’s welfare.

Moviegoers who heard Dr. Dolittle sing “Talk to the Animals” may be surprised to learn that “The Story of Dr. Dolittle” was banned in the 1920s because of objectionable references to race. A revised version was released in 1988 with the controversial passages changed or removed.

“That’s one way to get a challenged book out of the way,” Brax said. “Issue a revised edition.”

The other banned books on display on Wednesday were “Confessions” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall, “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair and “Women in Love” by D.H. Lawrence.

“I had to read ‘The Jungle’ in college and enjoyed it very much,” Brax said. “It’s very well written. The last 20 pages bored me. The main character decides there’s got to be a better life. He starts going to socialist meetings and says ‘A-ha!’ ”

Brax compared the books banned 90 years ago with four banned in 2013: “Captain Underpants” by Dav Pilker, “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian” by Sherman Alexie and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison.

Considering the challenges to these books, Brax said, “It’s pretty much the same reasons.”

The public has become more accepting of some of the reasons given for challenging books in past years.

For example, attitudes toward homosexuality, the basis for challenging “The Well of Loneliness,” have changed very rapidly in the past few years.

“I think most young adults are okay with gays,” Abbott said.

Brax said banning a book can be counterproductive because it calls attention to it, often with the result that it becomes more popular than it was before it was banned.

Marion Perry, a member of Perry Memorial Library Board of Trustees, said banning books — even if they are offensive — is discarding part of history.

“You can’t erase the past,” she said.

 

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.