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Oct 03 2008

Friday Favorite Banned Books

In honor of Banned Books Week, let’s talk about some of our favorite banned books, shall we, my darlings?

I grabbed my short list from the Wikipedia List of Most Commonly Challenged Books in the U.S. If any of you have lists from other countries, let us know in comments. Censorship is a worldwide problem. It grows like a weed, and, like a weed, needs to be pulled up and stopped before it can take deep root.

1984 by George Orwell. This wasn’t a comfortable book. Reading it felt like being bludgeoned to death by blank-faced lackeys of a dictator, and I went through a few weeks of numb fog afterward, jumping at Newspeak shadows. It brought on a mild form of PTSD. But it was one of the most valuable books I’ve ever read, and rings all too true during this Rise of American Totalitarianism.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. This book grabbed me by the shirt-front and yanked me in from the opening lines. “It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” I can see why it would be banned for strictly medical reasons: I nearly developed a hernia from laughing so hard. I’ve never read anything else that captured the insanity of war quite so well. Brilliant!

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Yes. I admit it. I’m a Harry Potter addict. My friend Justin forced the first book on me. I’d had absolutely no intention of reading a bloody kid’s book about a boy wizard, for fuck’s sake. Immediately upon finishing it, though, I was digging my crappy old Tempo out of the snow at four in the morning and forcing the poor beast to navigate icy streets to our 24-hour Wal-Mart to buy as many of the rest as were available. I adore her way with words. I love her characters. I think the magic is awesome, and I find it simply delightful that she’s persuaded a plethora of kids to read books bigger than they are. Every life needs some magic. She delivers.

How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell. I read this as a kid, delightfully grossed out by the whole concept of eating worms. I took away a few lessons from it that have proved valuable throughout my life: never make a bet you wouldn’t mind losing, never be afraid to try something new as long as it’s properly cooked, and worms are a good source of protein.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I read this in a single night in college. I’d never been one much for social justice, activism, unions and all that, but after suffering vicariously through the lives of those brutalized characters, I became a firm believer in all of the above, together with a healthy dose of government regulation. This book raised my consciousness more than just about anything else I’d ever read to that date. And it very nearly turned me into a vegan. I can tell you this: I’ll never see a sausage the same way ever again.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Another college book. I did my book report on it for my Islamic Civilization class. Honestly, I don’t remember all that much of the book itself, aside from liking it. What was most important was the fact that this book had sparked such outrage that it almost got its author killed. It was my first true introduction to the extremes of religious intolerance. And it got me in to reading other writers on Islamic themes, whom I’ve loved. There are incredible writers emerging from the Muslim world, incredible writers in their past, and none of them deserve death for what they’ve penned. Salman Rushdie remains one of my heroes to this day.

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume. Heart-wrenching. So many parts of this book have stayed with me, from that innocent night under the trees in the back yard when young love was blooming, only to be rudely interrupted by news that the main character’s father had been shot, to her mother breaking her toes by kicking a wall in a paroxym of grief, to singing “I Cain’t Say No” in the school play. “A tiger’s eye for my Tiger Eyes.” So many beautiful moments in this book. It’s given me a lot of strength throughout the years.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This was our sophomore lit required reading, and I can’t begin to describe the relief after having to suffer through The Oxbow Incident in freshman lit. (The insult added to injury was seeing them unpack boxes of Farenheit 451, the new freshman required reading, right after I’d gratefully abandoned that other pile of shit. Barstards!) I didn’t think I’d like this one any better, but a few pages in, I got hooked and finished it in a day. Scout and her father’s brave stand against racial injustice in the deep South captivated me. I found myself pulled into a world I’d never suspected existed. It taught me to overcome my fear of “otherness” – not that a lifetime living among African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans and other sundry folk hadn’t taught me that skin color is no more important than hair color, but there are still plenty of other differences. I think this book is why I wasn’t afraid to plunge into other cultures and get to know people with very strange customs. And it made me passionate about fairness and justice.

All of these books enriched my life in some way. All of them showed me the world through different eyes, and made me question basic assumptions. They reinforced my passion for the written word. Books allow us to experience lives we haven’t led. They open us wide to the world. They can change our perspectives, and make us better human beings.

Which is probably why so many of them end up being challenged by those who would rather we keep our eyes and minds firmly closed.

Fuck that. I’m going to grab myself another banned book. Point me to your favorites and join me in some freedom, my darlings.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Chaos Lee

    Two come to mind. Catcher in the Rye and American Psycho. I was overly-critical of American Psycho on my first reading (was about 21). Upon revisiting the book, I don’t believe there is a better criticism of unrestrained capitalism and the weird culture it creates. The book is horribly violent, and to many, reads as misogynistic, racist, ultra-violent. But with any smart book, it isn’t (well, it is ultra-violent). Rather, it portrays it. Of course, Brett Easton Ellis will be the first to tell you he can’t even bring himself to read the book and claims when writing it he would black out and find pages completed.

  2. 2
    Cujo359

    I must confess to being something of a philistine. I haven’t read all that many of those books, so what my favorites are would probably not be all that interesting. I got a kick out of Catch 22 – it was terrific satire. I’m surprised that Slaughterhouse Five is on the list. If one were inclined to object to sex and strange ideas in a book, it seems to me to be much less objectionable than some of Vonnegut’s other books.I liked the Earth’s Children series. The stories were so rich in the details of how people might have survived back then that it’s worth it on that basis alone.

  3. 3
    Blake Stacey

    Dystopian fiction for the win! If we’re going for genuine enjoyment and not just some measure of “historical importance”, I’d nominate Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.The first third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy — that is, the book sold as Northern Lights or The Golden Compass — is also terrific. The two later instalments were, I found, rather "spongy": they had lots of good stuff, but the overall structure wasn't so carefully managed as in the first book.

  4. 4
    Weemaryanne

    I remember “How to Eat Fried Worms” — I thought I was the only one! Thanks!

  5. 5
    Unsympathetic reader

    Does “Where’s Waldo?” count as dystopian fiction? Perhaps it’s banned because that series depicts a world too bleak and foreign for modern youth: A world where the reader searches over and over for the man, Waldo, who by some cruel turn of fate doesn’t have a cell phone, and thus cannot send a text message describing his whereabouts.

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