Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Banned Books Week: Literature Edition

While a freakish number of children's books have been banned or challenged, there have been plenty of adult books that have seen the wrath of angry people who spend entirely too much time counting words in the text without actually having read (or understood) the books in questions.

Toni Morrison, who is the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is not an author without controversy. Three of her books, Song of Soloman, The Bluest Eye, and Beloved, have all been challenged or banned because of violence, language, and sexuality. Beloved is one of my all-time favorite books, and while I admit it can be a harrowing read, it is also a very powerful one. While parts of the book still perplex me, it also provides incredible insight into slavery in the United States, and it also addresses issues of identity, memory, and guilt. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1988.

Although The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the great books in American literature, it is also one of the most contested books in the canon. In 1885, the Concord Public Library banned the book, saying that the novel was "trash suitable only for the slums." The book's depiction of Huck's behavior and Twain's use of vernacular caused much controversy at the time. Later, in the 20th century, the book came under fire because of its language and racial references. While I can understand how some of the language can make people uncomfortable, most people who challenge the book miss its point. This is not unlike...

Harper Lee's depiction of Depression Era Alabama is a great coming-of-age novel, but this sentiment is obviously not shared by many others, including the student who wanted the book banned because of language or the high school principal who didn't allow a performance of the stage adaptation because of the inclusion of racial slurs and the discussion of rape. However, the challenge that I get the biggest kick out of occurred in Tennessee when I was teaching there. A parent in Williamson County circulated an anonymous (aka cowardly) petition to get the book removed from the public schools there because of language like "snot nosed slut." The petition has so many wonderfully absurd moments that there isn't room or time to go over all of them. The highlights include a list of curses from the book (including "You're damn tootin," a phrase so hilarious that it makes the entire petition look even more ridiculous than it already is) and several quotes from the Bible that supposedly back up this person's protest. I guess that the protester conveniently forgot that, while the Bible is many things, one thing that it is decidedly not is PG-rated. (Incidentally, the Bible has also been banned/ challenged a lot).