Friday, October 2, 2009

The Upside of Censorship

Or Reading Banned Books on the North Shore

In case you haven’t heard, this past week was the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. It reminds me that about this time last year, someone started circulating a list of books that had been banned or suppressed somewhere, sometime, with the claim that Sarah Palin had attempted to have all of them removed from the Wasilla, Alaska public library when she was mayor of the town. I was personally disappointed that some of my otherwise very intelligent and well-informed book loving friends readily accepted this hoax as truth.

But that did start a long conversation in my reading group.

My reading group plans booklists several months at a time. We have two very creative leaders who develop the lists with input from the rest of the group. We like to have a theme. Over the years, our themes have included “Laudable Asian Novels,” “Acclaimed Prize Winners,” “Adventure, Sex, History,” and “Around the World in Five Books.”

But following the circulation of the banned books list, our next theme was irresistibly banned books. From a list of about ninety books banned, suppressed or challenged, our team selected five.

If your group wants a starting place, check out this list -- link here:

And maybe you’d like to see what we read from the list. Our picks, spanning the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century, also proved to cover a range of subjects. And they varied in literary value as well.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was published in 1852; the story is set in the pre-Civil War United States. The bestselling novel of the 19th century, it had a huge historic impact, often credited with sparking the U. S. Civil War.

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was published in 1884, but deals with events occurring considerably earlier, about 1839, in the American Midwest along the Mississippi River. Although very popular, it is often challenged because of its repeated use of the word ‘nigger.’

Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall was written and published about 1928. It is set primarily in England before, during and after the First World War. Less familiar, at least to the American reading public, the story concerns the development and life of a lesbian. The book was subject to considerable efforts to ban and suppress in England shortly after its publication.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. L. Lawrence was also written and published about 1928. Although set in Great Britain and written in English, the book was published in Italy. The events of the novel take place in the early part of the 20th century. The book was considered quite sexually explicit for its time and was widely banned, censored and subject to suppression.

Not Without My Daughter, written by Betty Mahmoody with William Hoffer, was published in 1987 and described events from just a couple of years earlier, 1984-85. The book is based on Betty Mahmoody’s life and the life of her family, particularly concerning events in Iran. It paints a very unflattering picture of some Iranians and Iran in general. Efforts have been made in Iran to suppress the book.

Many years ago an uncle of mine specifically told me NOT to read James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Of course, the very comment only made me determined to read the book – which I admit I still try to do from time to time. But the point is this: there is nothing like forbidding people to read something to increase interest in doing just that.

So the ninety or so books on the Adler Banned Books list become all the more interesting because sometime, somewhere, someone tried to prevent other people from reading them.

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