Shocking! The banned books on your bookshelves

This is a story I wrote for The Hutchinson News for Banned Book Weeks, Sept. 21-27.

If you were at Hutchinson High School in 1976, you may have read Lois Gould’s “Such Good Friends” or “Necessary Things” — before they were banned.

“Such Good Friends” was Gould’s first novel, about a woman who discovers her husband’s many affairs as he lay dying.  In real life, Gould had found a coded diary among her husband’s papers after his death. She cracked the code and learned that he had many affairs, including with some of her friends.

“Such Good Friends” spent seven weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and was made into a movie by director Otto Preminger.

Not long after the movie played in Hutchinson, the step-father of a Hutch High student complained about explicit sexual content in Gould’s two books, plus “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud,” by Max Ehrlich.

Gould’s books were deemed inappropriate for a high school audience and removed from the library shelves.  Ehrlich’s book, however, was allowed to remain.

Interestingly, at the time Gould’s books were in the Hutchinson Public Library’s collection.  But on the day the books were banned at Hutchinson High School, they were already checked out.

Thousands of books are challenged, banned or burned every year, a fact that the American Library Association reminds us of during its annual Banned Book Week, Sept. 21-27. It happens in many towns, many states, many countries, for many reasons. Political objections. Religious objections. Objections to violent or sexual content or crude language.

But if you read at all, you’ve probably read a book that was banned somewhere, sometime. The list includes some American classics that may surprise you.

  • “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain.
  • “The Call of the Wild,” by Jack London.
  • “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger.
  • “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck.
  • “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote.
  • “A Streetcar Named Desire,” by Tennessee Williams.
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee.

In the interests of full disclosure and at the risk of being branded subversive, I admit I”VE READ ALL THOSE BOOKS, and I recently hunted down a rare copy of “Such Good Friends,” now out of print, at a used book store in Wichita.

The U.S. Post Office used to be an official arbiter of what’s appropriate in books – or at least in books that passed through the mail. In the 1920s, the post office seized and burned copies of “Ulysses,” by James Joyce.  In 1940, it declared that Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was not mailable.

But not all banned books are classics or deal with subject matter that will either drive you to drink or sober you up.

Of all things, Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” series was the most-frequently banned or challenged book in 2013, according to the American Library Association. And also in 2012.

I mean a children’s graphic novel beat out “Fifty Shades of Grey?”

Go figure.

But I guess that there are some people who are worried that Pilkey’s books will give their kids ideas about putting pepper in the cheerleaders’ pompoms, pouring bubble bath in the marching band’s horns or using a mail-order hypnotic ring to transform their school principal into a scantily clad superhero.

In that case, I totally understand.

I mean, the subversive in me would totally have loved to use a hypnotic ring on my grade school principal, but I was smart for my age and I KNEW IT WOULD NOT WORK!

Maybe “Captain Underpants” should come with a Surgeon General’s warning label: “Don’t try this at school! You could get in REALLY, REALLY, BIG TROUBLE.”

In addition to “Captain Underpants,” some of the most frequently challenged books of 2013, according to the ALA, were No. 2 “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison,  No. 3 “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, No. 4 “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James (YOU KNEW THAT HAD TO BE ON THE LIST SOMEWHERE!) and No. 5 “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins.

Strange how adults get upset with books that are enormously popular with young people, like “The Hunger Games.” Another good example is J.K. Rowling and her “Harry Potter” books, which topped the ALA’s list of banned books in 2001 and 2002 and also ranked as the most-frequently banned or challenged books of that decade.

“Harry” has been challenged in California, Colorado, New York, South Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Oregon, Texas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Iowa. The challenges span more than four pages in “Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom To Read,” in which Robert P. Doyle details the challenges, bannings and burnings of 1,890 books.

Rowling’s books, which had kids waiting in line at book stores so they could get copies at midnight on the day of release, were criticized for being “scary” and including “smart-aleck retorts to adults.” On a more believable level, others objected to the books for dealing with magic, sorcery or the occult and “encouraging children to practice witchcraft.”

That makes sense. I mean, who among us has not been tempted to use the Tongue-Tying Curse to keep someone from talking about something?

In one Oregon school district, some parents were convinced the books would “lead children to hatred and rebellion.” In New Mexico, a church condemned the Potter books as “a masterpiece of satanic deception.” In Arkansas, Potter’s critics thought the book portrayed “good witches and good magic” and authority as “stupid.”

I suspect there would be some of the same people who think CONGRESS IS STUPID.

But some people are so single-minded about witchcraft that they completely miss the fact that Harry Potter is about a battle between good and evil. AND THE GOOD GUYS WIN.

By the standard used against Harry Potter, somebody probably should have tried to ban L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” too.  OH, WAIT!  IT WAS BANNED, in Chicago, Detroit and Florida, among other places, by people who said it was “ungodly,” “unwholesome for children” and – good, gosh — for depicting women in strong leadership roles.

“And lions, and tigers and bears, oh, my!”

The first Oz book was published in 1900.  Fifty-seven years later, the director of the Detroit Public Library said it had “no value for children of today.”

That provoked Russel B. Nye, a professor at Michigan State University who started courses in popular culture, to respond: “If the message of the Oz books – that love, kindness and unselfishness make the world a better place – has no value today, then maybe the time is ripe for reassessing a good many other things besides the Detroit Library’s approved list of children’s books.”

Books get challenged, banned and sometimes burned for all kinds of reasons: politics, religion, explicit language, violence, revealing unfortunate truths about revered figures, ethnicity of the author, ethnicity of the subject, sex, especially sex. Any sort of sex will get the kettle steaming for those who want to ban books, but gay sex will cause the kettle to whistle.

Take “Annie on My Mind” by Nancy Garden.  It’s about two high school girls, from different schools and different backgrounds who meet and fall in love.

Eleven years after it was published, Project 21, an LGBT organization, donated copies of the book to 42 schools in the Kansas City area. Some parents objected, and “Annie” was removed from the shelves of the Olathe East High School library.

In turn, some other parents, and a teacher, objected to the ban and sued the school district. In 1995, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that although a school district is not obligated to buy a book, once it does it cannot remove it from the shelves unless it is educationally unsuitable.  He ruled that “Annie” was suitable and its removal was an unconstitutional attempt to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”

After spending $160,000 defending the lawsuit, the school district put the book back on the shelves.

During the heat of the controversy, some parents even burned the book outside the offices of the Kansas City School District.

Heinrich Heine, a German poet, journalist, essayist and literary critic who died in 1856, once wrote something often translated as “where they burn books, they will end up burning people.”

In 1933, his countrymen enthusiastically burned thousands of “un-German” books, many by Jewish or American authors, after being whipped into a frenzy by Nazi propaganda.

They burned Heine’s books, along with those of Franz Kafka, Heinrich Mann, Victor Hugo, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, John Dos Passos, Helen Keller, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoyesvsky, and Leo Tolstoy, among many others.  They also burned scientific books by Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud and political books, especially those by communists, such as Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx.

Later, the Nazis also burned people.

A few years ago, I asked my college roommate, who lives in Austria, to find me a German language copy of Erich Maria Remarque’s “Im Westen nichts Neues,” which you might know as the World War I anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.”  My copy had to be printed in Germany before 1933. Even though I can’t read a word of German, I wanted to be able to say I owned a book that survived the bonfire.

I’m also proud to own “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury.  In 1992, students at a middle school in Irvine, Calif., received copies of the book with the “hells” and “damns” blacked out.  In Conroe, Texas, in 2006 the book was challenged because some of the characters were drunk, smoked cigarettes, talked dirty and used God’s name in vain.

It’s ironic, to say the least, that someone wanted to ban “Fahrenheit 451,” which is a book about a society in which BOOKS ARE BANNED and the fire department’s principal duty is BURNING BOOKS.

But sometimes banning or burning a book just isn’t enough.

In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini actually sentenced to Salman Rushdie to death for writing “The Satanic Verses.” It was banned in some Muslim countries and was even challenged as “blasphemous to the prophet Muhammad” at the Wichita Public Library in 1989.

Extremists never got to Rushdie, but they did kill the book’s Japanese translator in 1989 and wound its Italian translator in 1991 and it’s Norwegian publish in 1993.

So if you give banned books a thought this week, imagine how poorer we would be if those who wanted to suppress all these books had been successful, if decisions to publish or display a book were based on the lowest common denominator: whether anyone, anyone at all, would take offense?

Who would you want making that decision?

To learn more about books that have been challenged, banned and burned, including the American Library Association’s annual lists, a list of banned classics, the most frequently challenged authors and more, go to http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks.

Click here to see the American Library Association’s list of the 10 most frequently challenged books of 2013.

Click here to see a list of 21 Nobel laureates whose books have been banned.

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