From Brave New World to the Harry Potter series, it seems that no book is safe in the schools and libraries of America. Since 1982, over 11,300 books have been challenged or removed from public shelves, and the American Library Association (ALA) estimates that as many as five times that go unreported. In order to draw attention to the problem of censorship, the ALA holds Banned Books Week, an annual program of events that takes place during the last week in September. Here are five banned books you should pick up in celebration of our freedom to read.
1. ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck
This novel has the dubious distinction of having made the Klu Klux Klan come together with people, “regardless of race, color, creed, or political or religious beliefs,” to bring about a common aim, as Haig A. Bosmajian notes in Burning Books. Unfortunately, the common aim was censorship.
School boards across the country agreed, condemning Of Mice and Men for its profanity and vulgarity, (ironic, given the Klan’s condoning of racial slurs). This abundance of "offenses" puts Of Mice and Men at number four on the ALA’s list of The Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century.
2. ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ by Sherman Alexie
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an eminently bannable book. This entrant from the ALA’s distinguished list boasts racial themes, several deaths, and a few highly controversial references to masturbation. However, as author Sherman Alexie pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, his semi-autobiographical story about budding cartoonist Arnold Spirit Jr., who leaves his Indian reservation to attend an all-white high school, is a perfect case study in everything that’s wrong with adults declaring what is and isn’t appropriate for a certain age group.
Most teenagers have had their own experiences of bullying, prejudice, and profanity long before they get to Alexie's book. Attempting to protect them from these realities is a lost cause, but preventing them from reading Sherman’s hilarious and heartbreaking novel deprives them of a witty and honest reminder that they’re not alone.
3. ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut
Described as, “anti-American, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy,” as Bosmajian records, the distinctive antiwar theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal work seems to have been rather overlooked by the Island Trees Board of Education, which attempted to remove the book from school shelves. Fortunately, its initiative was overturned by the Supreme Court in the landmark Board of Education vs. Pico case.
That’s fortunate, because the story features time travel, alien abduction, and an oh-so-iconic refrain of “so it goes.” Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the most powerfully written and, by far, the strangest antiwar book you’ll ever read.
4. ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury
Even typically thoughtless censors have been attuned to the irony of banning a novel about book burning. Mississippi’s West Marion High School stopped short of a full ban, instead choosing to remove the book from a required reading list, and expurgating all those troublesome “hell”s and “goddamn”s from the copies on its bookshelves. To add another layer of irony, a chief complaint against Fahrenheit 451 stems from a drastic misreading that sees the story as advocating Bible burning. The Bible, incidentally, is another book that’s often challenged.
5. ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man isn’t anything like the similarly named science fiction novella by H.G. Wells, which can make only the relatively common claim of having been burnt by the bibliophobic Nazis. Ellison’s commentary on race relations in the 1930s, named one of the Books that Shaped America by the Library of Congress, was banned just last week by the Randolph County Board of Education in North Carolina.
The decision saw one board member, quoted in The Courier-Tribune, declaring that he, “didn’t find any literary value” in a work that’s frequently featured in lists of the most influential books of the 20th century. Understandably, many in Randolph County disagreed, and former resident Evan Smith Rakoff has been working with the novel’s publisher, Vintage Books, to distribute free copies to local high school students.
However, just in time to give Banned Books Week some good news, the board has decided to reconsider its controversial decision. At a special meeting held on Wednesday, The Courier-Tribune reported a 6-1 vote in favor of seeing The Invisible Man reinstated on school shelves.