When I was in high school a local politician riled up a bunch of parents to start a campaign to ban certain books from the school library. The big concern for this group was Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, which depicts teenagers having sex.
At the time I was reading a science fiction book, which I had gotten from the school library, by Frank Herbert. In the book, The Heaven Makers, an alien races manipulates mankinds emotions because they are immortal and easily bored. There was one scene as I recall where these aliens turned the pleasure centers on one of the female characters up and down, just to watch as she spontaneously orgasmed. I told one of my friends, “I don’t think these conservatives have a clue what is actually in most of these books, or they wouldn’t have started with Romeo and Juliet.”
The book banning frenzy didn’t go anywhere. I grew up in a small town filled with strongly Lutheran immigrants, either German or Norwegian. You couldn’t have described them as liberals by any stretch of the imagination but they had two traits that made book banning unlikely. They valued education, a lot. The notion of stopping someone from learning went against the grain. They also had enough common sense to realize that banning a book about a certain subject wasn’t going to make that subject go away. Keeping teens ignorant about sex was not going to stop them from discovering it on their own. In fact, if your daughter was at home reading Romeo and Juliet she was not in the back seat of some boy’s car getting knocked up.
One good thing came out of that incident. I already had a passion for books, but after that I had a passion for banned books specifically. Here are my favorite banned books.
1. All is Quiet on the Western Front
All is Quiet on the Western Front is the granddaddy of modern banned books. It was condemned almost as soon as it was published in Germany for being defeatist and anti-nationalist. During World War II it was banned by many governments, because it’s bleak portrayal of war was too damaging to recruitment efforts.
2. Farenheit 451
Ray Bradbury’s classic tale of censorship and book banning has had its own brushes with banning. When it was first published it was criticized for its language, indeed some schools blacked out the damns and hells from early versions. Personally I can’t help but think it’s an excuse. Anyone interested in banning books is not going to like a book that discusses the consequences of banning books.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale
Just as book banners don’t really want a book about banned books, they really don’t like a book that talks about what happens when fundamentalist take over the country. The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak dystopian world ruled by religious conservatives where women are less than second class characters.
Fans of the Hunger Games and Divergent might want to check out this classic dystopian tale.
4. Annie on my Mind
Annie on my Mind is a coming out tale written in the mid seventies. While it’s not the first lesbian story to be told by any stretch, what made it the source of wrath for conservatives was that it had a happy ending.
Annie on my Mind was also my first “official” banned book, in that I knew it had been the source of controversy before I read it, and I read it during banned book week.
5. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Even the textbook version of Native American history today accepts that they were mistreated by white settlers. But in 1970 when this book came out, that was a controversial suggestion. The book was banned or challenged in schools across the country for creating controversy.
6. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Another anti-war book, banned or challenged, frequently for it’s language and sexual content.
Cat’s Cradle, also by Vonnegut, has an equally long history of being challenged and condemned, for mostly the same reasons.
7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain’s classic has been challenged throughout it’s history. Dealing frankly with race and slavery made it an instant target for conservatives in it’s day. Ironically now it’s more often liberals, offended by the language of the times, that challenge the book.
8. The Color Purple
Why get bent out of shape over graphic depictions of racism, or open depictions of LGBT characters when you can have both? The Color Purple has everything a good book banning needs. Alice Walker challenges racial stereotypes, gender, sexism and sexuality in this book.
9. Moby Dick
This book was banned in Texas back in the nineties, in a case that has the American Library Association scratching it’s head. Why was it banned? Apparently it “conflicts with the community values.” It’s a great novel and worthy of reading, banned or not.
10. Harry Potter
The entire Harry Potter series is one of the more popular challenged books of our generation. I discovered Harry Potter long before the book banners had any clue about the boy who lived. My best guess is that they don’t like magic, the muggles.
Major geek points if you already knew this.
Once upon a time, the prize of banned book collection was a slender volume, La Stratoj De Askelon (The Streets of Ashkelon) by Harry Harrison. The story goes that the short story was so controversial that Harrison couldn’t find an English publisher willing to touch it, so it was first published in the international language of Esperanto.
It tells the story of a missionary attempting to spread Christianity to a group of aliens. The attempt goes horribly awry when the aliens decide to test the crucifixion by stringing up the missionary to see if he would come back to life in three days.
The story was eventually published in English and has been through many anthologies.