Skip to main content


September 25, 2013

Throwback Thursday: So Many Cheers for Banned Books Week!

Posted by emily

Happy Banned Books Week, readers! Don't you love a celebration of how stupid our country used to be (?) and how far we've come (?)? I know we over here at 20SomethingReads (and TeenReads --- check out Liz's blog post about it here) do! At the outset of this project we figured --- because we're such a subversive group of curious intellectuals --- that we'd have no problem finding books we've read and loved on the banned books list. We were shocked to learn how many of our old favorites were banned --- basically every good book ever was decried at some point. Even my sister, Jilly, who famously hates books, would find something she's read on the list. So let's give three cheers (or however many cheers you want, because society doesn't OWN us) for all the great literature that has made it through centuries of ignorance and misguided moral condemnation! Because how much lonelier would our childhoods have been without Holden, Huck Finn or (*gasp*) Harry Potter? I know you get it. Even Jilly gets it.

Nicole: FAHRENHEIT 451
There are one too many jokes I could make about my pick for this week's themed TBT on banned books --- FAHRENHEIT 451. Between books (oh! the irony) and fires (of which I have a very...cough cough...interesting relationship, too --- note the office popcorn incident of the beginning of April), and the government (who has been actively following the NY mayoral race besides myself?), there are so many wildly coincidental things about how perfect FAHRENHEIT 451 "ignites" an increased interest in the motivations behind National Banned Book week. I read Ray Bradbury's classic in eighth grade (talk about a throwback) and the opinions expressed in the book were relevant at the time of its publication in 1953, at the time I read it more than 10 years ago, and still today. A radical perspective on how people deal with their "fears" and how the government "controls" the people, the backdrop for this social commentary is a dystopic future where television reigns over literature (another irony on 20Something's obsession with Fall 2013's black box lineup...and the incessant 20Something dilemma of --- to read or to watch?).

FAHRENHEIT 451 is the number one bestseller on Amazon in the "Censorship & Politics" category for books --- but really, who's noticing...and not noticing? Clearly an obvious pick, this masterpiece speaks volumes on the importance of maintaining and preserving our rights to free speech and the freedom of the press, in all forms and in particular for the purposes of this blog post, via the printed (or eBook) word. It makes sense that it was included on a Banned Books list at one point as the controversial topics and themes addressed in the book "spark" a personal, immediate outrage --- burning books? What blasphemy! I speak on behalf of all authors and writers and humans alike when I assert that we will not be silenced! As Liz Kossnar of so aptly described FAHRENHEIT 451: "The book that is most known as a commentary on books and censorship is itself banned." I say, how meta!

I was shocked to see that GONE WITH THE WIND is on the list of 100 most-banned classic books! Just kidding, I wasn’t really --- like many 20Somethings, I’ve adopted a kind of benevolently ironic attitude about the strange things people did, as individuals and as communities, over the course of human history. I don’t condone it, but I am happy that the times they are a-changed. But let’s be honest, GONE WITH THE WIND is a super sexy book, with a brave and selfish female protagonist who is way more interested in making money and chasing other people’s husbands than in being a wife and a mother. Which I’m sure was a big part of the reason why the book was banned, and also a big part of the reason I was obsessed with it in ninth grade (true story: I made a bet with my ninth grade English teacher that I could relate any book we read in class to GONE WITH THE WIND, and, much to Dr. Coogan’s amusement, I stubbornly proceeded to work the Margaret Mitchell classic into all my essays --- you try using Tara, the O’Hara estate, as a metaphor for Voltaire’s view of society in CANDIDE and tell me I’m not a Comp Lit genius). Scarlett O’Hara is a supremely flawed heroine, but she’s way more interesting than her milquetoast (!!! I’ve always wanted to use that word!), mousey counterpart, Melanie Hamilton. This was a woman who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to look “unfeminine” in pursuit of it. The book was apparently also banned for its unabashed use of profanity, although how anyone can prefer to live in a world where Rhett never says, “My dear, I don’t give a damn,” is beyond me. Some people just don’t know how to appreciate real art, amirite?

I have a crazy love-hate relationship with ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare. When I’m miserable about the state of my own love life and hating on men --- Juliet is an idiot. However, sometimes when I personally have “love in the air” --- I can see how Juliet could heartbreakingly love someone so much that she would want to die for him rather than live without him --- especially if he happens to look like Orlando Bloom or Douglas Booth. They’re both too old to be playing Romeo as based on the play, but they’re both so dreamy we’ll overlook that. However, let’s get serious for just a minute. If we ignore all the (SPOILER!) death and the melodrama, what Romeo and Juliet really does is explore some very real issues about love, loyalty and the fragility of time. Love at first sight --- real or not real? Dump your guy cause your parents hate him or rebel and stick by him? Yes, Romeo and Juliet could seem outdated at first glance, but when it really comes down to it, isn’t a good old-fashioned love story kind of timeless?

This book will forever live on in my mind as “that one from seventh grade where the kids go nuts on that deserted island.” I’m pretty sure it was required reading for me, but unlike most of the paperbacks I got handed in Honors English, I actually read this one cover to cover. Little did I know it had been banned elsewhere for violence and disturbing content, and I shudder to think of the damage I must have done to my vulnerable young psyche by reading such subversive trash. But I haven’t started putting pig’s heads on stakes or hurling rocks at toddlers yet, so I may have escaped with minimum emotional scarring. For those of you who had the misfortune of growing up somewhere with an overabundance of morals, LORD OF THE FLIES is about a group of children who get marooned on a deserted island and slowly get more and more savage without the influence of civilization. By the time another ship finds them, they’ve started hunting one another. Like many of the other banned books we’re talking about here, it has acts of violence, some disturbing imagery and expresses some very uncomfortable ideas about human nature. A lot of the banned books we’re talking about this week are similar in that they also tackle topics that are normally taboo or take a stance that most readers find unpleasant. And the kicker for LORD OF THE FLIES is that all its major characters are children, and everyone knows children are supposed to be perfect and innocent and have thrilling but harmless adventures when they find themselves in exotic places (Peter Pan, this is entirely your fault). Light reading? Definitely not. Worthwhile reading? Absolutely.

Since a 15-year-old girl penned this novel of youth and class struggle almost 50 years ago, it’s been included in the curriculum of thousands of American schools (you probably read it in eighth grade) and been adapted into a Coppola film with maybe the dreamiest brat pack cast ever assembled. (Patrick Swayze as Darry, Rob Lowe as Sodapop --- need I say more? If you’re not convinced, baby Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez are in the mix as well.) Also since its publication, THE OUTSIDERS has had concerned parents in a tizzy over its portrayal of gang violence, underage smoking and drinking, family dysfunction, and generally “unchristian values.” Interestingly, most complaints about the book sound just like the complaints of adults in the story, who condemn teenage protagonist Ponyboy and his fellow greasers as bad influences. To be honest, adults in the book look pretty bad, and since real life adults do most of the book banning around here, I can see why THE OUTSIDERS frequently makes the list. While Hinton wrote about the America she knew, its more unsavory aspects are a still reality for more kids than we’d like to imagine, and its message that circumstances do not dictate a person’s value still matters. Those who see THE OUTSIDERS as senseless violence among a bunch of troublemakers from the wrong side of the tracks miss what’s at the heart of the story: family (broken still counts, guys), brotherhood, friendship, heroism and the idea that even if things are “rough all over” there is good in the world. Stay gold, kids.

When I first saw Mulan, I thought the training sequence song (featuring the lyrics “mysterious as the dark side of the moon”) was actually the Pink Floyd song “Dark Side of The Moon” (“Brain Damage” to you knowledgeable fans). It was quite clear to me why that song had been such a hit in the ‘70s…because it was an epic saga of manliness. Then I heard the actual Pink Floyd song, and realized that hippies took a ton of drugs and were not, in fact, fierce warriors driven by a deep code of honor. Anywho, I’m pretty sure Chuck Palahniuk's FIGHT CLUB is the Disney song --- appropriately titled “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” --- in literary form. The book is a force of indomitable masculinity and, as such, has been banned at times by an assortment of libraries. Most of these bans are due to complaints of excessive violence, encouraging boys to fight and other such nonsense. If you read the book, you will soon realize that the protagonist smashing a stranger’s head into the ground is the least questionable of its moments. The novel has layers of subtext: Is it about the loss of the male identity? The value of art? Oedipus complexes? Thantos? The power of the mind over the body? The individual versus society? The weakness of the masses? Why women are so confusing? Well it’s all of that, and more, depending on who you ask. Regardless of how you read it, this book will make a man out of you.