26 April 2021

No, No, No, No-no, No-no-no...Banned Books

 by Steve Liskow

I'm jumping the season a little. This year, Banned Books Week will be late in September. During that week, we are reminded how many of the classics are or were on somebody's hit list in an effort to protect innocent (?) minds from the corrupting influence of new ideas. If you're of a certain age, you probably read many of these in school or even on your own. I did.

Obviously, the list expands as new authors produce new work, especially work challenging our assumptions about issues like race and sexuality. Unfortunately, few books get removed from that list, even if it's only in some miniscule township or school district ten miles east of Oblivion. 

I directed the play with this poster. 

I don't like censorship and have been known to push the envelope myself. I understand the concerns, but hate the blind fear that often inspires it. When I student-taught in a suburb of Detroit, the school system had a standard form a parent had to fill  out if he/she objected to their child's reading a particular text. I wish I had a copy of it now, but I still remember the first two questions on the form:

1. Have YOU read the entire book?

2.  Are you aware of the critical responses to the book?

I still think that's a good starting point.

I found a list of the most-banned books over the last ten years. I've only heard of two of the books currently in the top ten and haven't read either of them. That makes sense because parents tend to focus on YA books to "protect" their children, which means the books show up in the classroom. I assigned several older titles still in the top 50, including Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, The Things They Carried, and that constant target, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

When I started teaching, the only systemic censorship I encountered was for Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Someone complained about the book (To this day, I don't see the problem) and the school's principal, never one to take a stand, ordered the English teacher who maintined the book inventory to burn all the school's copies. Really. That teacher explained why he thought it was a bad idea and donated the books to the local veteran's hospital and various other venues. The principal had him removed and I got his job the following year. True story.

That was fifty years ago. Over the following years, I encountered a few parents and students who objected to certain books, but it was never an organized group effort. 

My first full year, two classes voted to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and buy it from one of the many paperback book clubs common at the time. I'd never read it, and when I opened  the first page, I saw trouble brewing and turned to the seasoned veterans for advice. One told me to compose a letter to all the parents explaining why I thought the book merited study and have them sign and return it to confirm their approval. Only one parent objected, and when I invited her in to discuss her concerns, she signed the letter instead.

I taught in a town with a population that was about 1/3 Hispanic and 1/3 black, with a few Asians, too. The students in our district spoke seventeen different languages at home. Given that demographic, it's amazing I didn't start more brushfires, but the only other battle, which became routine, concerned Huckleberry Finn. Some of my black students refused to read it because of the 214 uses of the "N-word."

I gave those kids a choice of three alternative texts, and they could write a two-to-four-page essay about their experience reading the book OR present a five-minute oral discussion to the rest of the class. The three books were Native Son by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison or Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. All three writers are black, and two of those books are considerably longer than Huckleberry Finn. Invisible Man is also pretty complex. I used this approach for six or seven years, and it worked well. After about three years, more and more kids decided to read Huckleberry Finn after all. 

When I retired from teaching, both Wright and Hurston were part of the curriculum. 

I actually objected to one book myself. In 1999, Robert Fagles produced a new translation of The Odyssey to enthusiastic acclaim. My school had been using the Lattimore translations of both The Iliad and The Oddysey for decades, and at the first department meeting of the new year, a younger teacher (pretty much anyone in the department was younger than I was) suggested replacing the older translation. I raised my hand.

"Has anyone besides me read the Fagles?" I asked.

No one had.

"OK," I said. "It reduces the poetry to informal chat and weakens the majesty of the Lattimore. That may or may not matter to you. But let me point out that 3/4 of the teachers in this department are female. Odysseus always addresses Circe and Calypso, the two women he has sex with while he's away from his wife, as 'Bitch.' If that works for you, I'd like to visit your classrooms to watch you discuss it with your teen-aged students." 

The suggestion died then and there.

It reminded me of the commotion years ago over Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho. His original publisher rejected the MS because of the violent and misogynistic content, and people rushed to both sides of the debate. Finally, one critic--I wish I remembered who--pointed out that the violence and ideology were secondary issues. 

The book simply wasn't very well-written.

That still strikes me as the line we don't cross. Is it violent? Sexy? Political? Disturbing? Maybe, and maybe it hits a few of your personal buttons. But those things matter less if the author does his or her job well. I don't read some books because I don't like them. But that doesn't mean I won't let you read them. I wish more people felt like that. I still remember a comment Maurice Sendak made years ago in a writing workshop I attended.

"We teach children taste. What do we teach them when we give them bad books?"


  1. Good stuff, Steve. I love the story about the Odyssey. I read a report back in the eighties about a school board ordering the janitor to burn some books in the school furnace. He did.

  2. Amen. And, of course, the Harry Potter series is occasionally put on the banning chopping block because "it teaches witchcraft!!!!!!!" (If I remember correctly, there are no working spells given in the book, and you can't get any of the equipment down at the local drugstore.)

  3. Eve, I remember an editorial in Christianity Today that said approximately: Harry Potter says that hard work, friendship, and sacrifice defeat greed, ego, and ambition. What's to object to?

  4. Well, there's WITCHCRAFT!!!!! From Wikipedia:
    "Paul Hetrick, spokesman for Focus on the Family, an American Evangelical Christian group based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, outlined the reasons for his opposition to them: "[They contain] some powerful and valuable lessons about love and courage and the ultimate victory of good over evil; however, the positive messages are packaged in a medium – witchcraft – that is directly denounced in Scripture." Harry Potter has been the subject of at least six book burnings in the U.S. In 2002, Chick Publications produced a comic book tract titled "The Nervous Witch" that declared "the Potter books open a doorway that will put untold millions of kids into hell." In 2007 Jacqui Komschlies wrote an article in Christianity Today comparing Harry Potter to "rat poison mixed with orange soda," and said, "We're taking something deadly from our world and turning it into what some are calling 'merely a literary device.'"

    1. Hey, I took rat poison for a few weeks. It was called Coumadin, a brand name of warfarin. You wouldn't believe my magical powers! But I didn't try it with orange soda, and anyway, it can't be worse than drinking bleach or hydrochlorquine or shining a bright light inside the body. I'm pretty sure Professor Birx mentioned that in the accursed potions course.

      Wait… you said comic books? Aren't they supposed to be evil?

  5. Of course, they also don't like Tolkein, so there's that. Apparently The Lord of the Rings comes in as #40 in the banned books list.

  6. Yeah, I have a problem when schools/governments ban books. But as a parent, when my daughter was growing up (she's now 40!), "I" reserved the right to censor anything she might read or watch on TV or at the movies. Actually I can't remember censoring anything! On a possibly related note, I didn't want her to use the school computers to look for information on certain topics, so I taught her how to find whatever on our own puter at home.

  7. Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth.

    Yes, parents should monitor what their children read, watch, and hear. Remember the warning labels and the PMRC in the 1980s, which came about because Tipper Gore was appalled at the lyrics on records her kids had PURCHASED? Good intentions, but horribly planned and executed.

    If a parent objects to a book I assigned, I would have gladly discussed their concerns, and maybe found a substitute text, like with Huck above. The problem is that the discussion/conversation never happens.

  8. I'm adamantly opposed to censorship, so I'm pleased when people fight back.

    That said, I wished my Salinger-fan teacher had banned Catcher in the Rye because it was soooo boring, oh lord, so self-absorbed and dull… 😴 There went a couple of hours out of my life and I was only a teen.

    I find it surprising people want to ban Huckleberry Finn but overlook Pudd'nhead Wilson. Huck Finn has a couple of things working against the novel. People who haven't read the book fail to realize Twain was undermining and subverting the Southern establishment and his primary target was slavery. Then there's the problem of nuance of the ñ-word. The shades of meaning 50 years ago differ from a hundred and two hundred years in the past. That's not to make a justification argument, but one of slipping into the mode of the period.

    By the way, Steve, a good friend who taught in Charleston inner city schools remarked her problem wasn't so much black parents objecting to Finn, but white parents opposing the book.

  9. Good post, Steve. I'm always surprised at the books that upset readers (or their parents) while the dull, bland, incoherent, ungrammatical, sloppy, etc., get a pass. Modern translations trying to make their texts more "relevant" for students are among the worst offenders, taking a text that honors poetry and history and turns it into a cliched TV script. I hope you'll revisit this topic in September.

  10. Thanks, Susan.

    The revisions that set my teeth on edge the most were the modernized butcherings of Shakespeare. I either acted in or directed over a dozen of his plays, and the original language is there to help actors depict the character AND to help with both memorizing and movement. I often began rehearsals with workshops on the language for the actors new to Shakespeare, and they all enjoyed the activities. late in my teaching career, two younger teachers were team-teaching Romeo and Juliet...and bombarding their poor classes with reams of worksheets along with the text. I suggested they have the kids get up and act out the scenes, but they told me the kids couldn't do that because they didn't understand the language. I said, "Bull. They can't do that because YOU are AFRAID of the language." We didn't talk much after that.


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