Monday 7th August, 2006

Debbie Jacob
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Best of banned books

I’m always writing columns about what people should be reading, so I thought I’d do something different and write about books that people say should not be read. We take freedom for granted.

Recently, during one of my assignments for a Principals of Library course, I happened to come across an interesting online site about banned books. The site is [email protected] It doesn’t hit every book that has ever been banned, but it does hit the highlights of banned books. The list includes the book chosen by Modern Library as the best novel of the 20th century: Ulysses by James Joyce. The US banned it from coming into the country in 1918. The ban was not lifted until 1933.  

Harvard University found its shipment of Voltaire’s Candide confiscated by US Customs in 1930. But book-banning dates back far longer than this. Aristotle had banned books. His anti-war writing entitled Lysistrata was banned many times in the ancient world and in 1967, Greece—then controlled by a military junta—decided it was a dangerous work.

Books are usually banned for religious, social, political and sexual content. Objectionable language is also a common reason given for banning books; so it’s not surprising that the sexual content of John Cleland’s famous titillating novel entitled Fanny Hill would have been banned many times since its first publication in 1749.

Peace-loving poet Walt Whitman had his famous collection of poetry Leaves of Grass banned in Boston because of explicit language.

Remember Robinson Crusoe? Author Daniel Defoe should have stuck to poor men marooned on the island of Tobago because his novel Moll Flanders was banned until the US Supreme Court finally cleared it from obscenity charges in 1966.  

The US mail service got into the banning act with the Comstock Law of 1873 that made it a federal offence to mail “lewd,” “indecent,” “filthy,” or “obscene” materials through the US postal service. This facilitated banning charges for some time.

The Comstock Laws are not really enforced any more but they are still on the books just waiting to be enforced again. The Telecommunications Reform Bill of 1996 referred back to the Comstock Laws and applied some of them to computer networks.

Jack London’s Call of the Wild was banned in Yugoslavia and Italy in 1929 because it was deemed “too radical.” I guess the story of a wolf is kind of radical.

We all know how the South African apartheid government banned books that threatened them politically. The white South African government banned its own writers, but the ban also included Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which was conjured up during a fireside chat in Switzerland with her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and other writers who went along on the trip. Frankenstein was banned for being “indecent, objectionable, or obscene.”

Animal stories have also incurred the wrath of censors. Censors banned Anna Sewell’s novel Black Beauty, a benign story about a horse.

D H Lawrence, who made a career of writing books that explored sexuality, found himself embroiled in censorship when his racy novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover hit the book stands. Both the UK and the US banned sales and the ban wasn’t lifted until the 1960s. Lady Chatterley’s Lover became one of the great, all-time underground books.

Of course, there have always been those people looking out for what is inappropriate for students to read in school.

Banned booklists outside of this site include Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, banned for questionable content, sex and vulgar language. Maya Angelou’s novel I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings was banned because of sex and rape.

One of the best all-time cases included in the University of Pennsylvania site comes from a case in 1996, when a high school in New England banned Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night because of its “prohibition of alternative lifestyle instruction” act. The play has a woman who disguises herself as a boy and that’s a no-no in New England.   

The site also says an illustrated edition of Little Red Riding Hood was banned in two California school districts in 1989 because Little Red’s basket had a bottle of wine in it.  

Afro-Americans have also jumped on the banning bandwagon. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer have been constant targets, even in Mark Twain’s lifetime, for what has been deemed racist content.    

Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of the American Civil War, the modern classic entitled Gone with the Wind, was banned in some places that objected to Scarlet O’Hara’s lack of morality.  

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was banned from classrooms in Midland, Michigan in 1980, because of its portrayal of the Jewish character Shylock.   

The Bible and the Qur’an have had their fair share of being banned in schools in the US and Russia. What does that tell you?

The history of banned books is fascinating because it tells a lot about a society’s fears of the time. What is equally interesting is how good literature always manages to resurface and beat the rap. That is simply testimony to the creative and independent spirit that connects us all as readers.

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