West Egg, Oceania, and Middle Earth—The Great Gatsby, 1984, and The Lord of the Rings may all take place in different locations (and during different times), but these classic books have something in common: All have been subject to censorship.
While the banning of books may seem more suited for the plot of Fahrenheit 451, which ironically has been banned, censored, or redacted itself, the practice is still alive and well across classrooms in the United States. Banned Books Week seeks to bring awareness to censored books, promotes the protection of First Amendment freedoms, and highlights the value of storytelling.
Celebrated during the last week of September, Banned Books Week began in response to a growing censorship movement in the 1980s, culminating in the Supreme Court case Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico by Pico. The Island Tree Union Free School District’s Board of Education ordered that certain books be removed from its junior high and high school libraries, including Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Best Short Stories of Negro Writers edited by Langston Hughes. The Board of Education argued that these books were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Board could not restrict the availability of books in its libraries, and that while school boards have an interest in promoting community values, “their discretionary power is secondary to the transcendent imperatives of the First Amendment.”
In 1982, the American Booksellers Association, the National Association of College Stores, and the American Library Association (ALA)’s Office for Intellectual Freedom joined together for the very first Banned Books Week, sparking a movement that continues today with a variety of coalition partners including the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Some of the most influential writings of our time have fallen prey to censorship. According to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, “at least 46 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been the target of ban attempts.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and Lee herself was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, with President George Bush stating, “To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced the character of our country for the better. It’s been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever.”
Despite these accolades, To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be one of the most challenged books in the country. According to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, out of the 416 challenged or banned books in 2017, To Kill a Mockingbird ranks seventh, and was challenged or banned due to “violence and its use of the N-word.”
Censoring a book on censorship, let alone one that ranked 53rd in Time’s “Top 100 Greatest Novels of All Time” list in 2010, seems counterintuitive, but even George Orwell’s iconic dystopian novel 1984 wasn’t free from an attempted challenge. In 1981, Jackson County, Florida challenged 1984 on the basis that it was “pro-communist and contained explicit sexual material.” While no recent formalized challenges have occurred, present-day attempts at literary censorship continue to make Orwell’s message relevant.
A more recent classic, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series took the world by storm when the first book of the series was published in the United Kingdom in 1997 (the United States in 1998). Since then, the series has sold over 450 million books and has been translated into 73 languages. Others didn’t find the series so magical. The books topped the list of most challenged books in 2001 and 2002, falling to second place in 2003, with reasons for censorship including “anti-family, violence, and occult/Satanism.” Despite these initial challenges, over time the series disappeared from the ALA’s “Top 10” charts and continues to captivate audiences with its themes of love, loss, and the triumph of good over evil.
While protections of free speech and expression found in the First Amendment are crucial for a flourishing democracy, Banned Books Week is also a reminder of the larger role we play in creating and sustaining a culture of openness. While we don’t all have to agree, allowing for a wide range of experiences and voices allows readers to broaden their understanding of the world and engage across cultural and philosophical divides. The next time you stop by your local library or bookstore, why not take a chance and become a literary rebel?