The worst, most graphic book I’ve ever read was William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” I read it because I have a certain appreciation for the “beatnik” writers (especially Jack Kerouac, a poster of hung over my desk for some time before it finally fell to pieces), and because the name of my favorite band, Steely Dan, can from Burroughs’ book. (The name comes from a steam-powered sex toy, to give you an idea of the type of content the book provided.)
I have a strong stomach and a questionable moral compass, and the book successfully challenged even my constitution. I cannot even begin to tell you what the plot of the book exactly was, too tangled was I in the incredibly graphic depictions of man-on-man sex that was followed by neck snapping and other such carnage. Seriously, the book was demented. It’s not one I generally recommend. If I do encourage you to read it, you may be aware that I don’t like you, or you have explicitly expressed a desire for a challenge.
So, with the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week drawing to a close, I found a list of the most banned and challenged classic books in America. That “Naked Lunch” came in at No. 73 tells me that many who would have books banned have not even tried to read this particular tome.
The effort to ban books is aimed not at publishers, who will publish what they deem most profitable and have the distribution systems in place that are beyond grassroots challenges, but at public and school libraries where many books are consumed. The objections are over content, and run a gamut from claims of obscenity to stuff that, well, parents just don’t want their children to know about.
The top most challenged book for 2010 – the one that would-be censors have tried most actively to remove from libraries in the past year – was a children’s book called “And Tango Makes Three.”
The picture book is based on the true story of two male penguins at the New York City Zoo who were found taking turns sitting on an egg-shaped rock. In the book, a zookeeper switches the rock for an abandoned egg, which the two male penguins, Roy and Silo, take turns incubating until a healthy baby hatchling, Tango, is born.
To be clear, Roy and Silo are not in a domestic partnership, nor are they lovers or fans of lavish Broadway musicals. From the reviews I’ve read online, the penguins do not even have a stylish in-town apartment to share. The book does not paint the penguins as gay. It does, however, paint them as loving parents working together to raise a baby.
Now, to assume that efforts to ban books don’t affect you because your typical reading list does not include vaguely-homosexual penguin stories, remember that the Harry Potter series also was perianally on the list of challenged books, owing to the claims that it taught children to become witches and wizards, and that the 2010 list also include Stephanie Myers’ “Twilight” series because of it was “sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence, unsuited to age group.” The religious viewpoint, by the way, was vampirism.
Were the “object-ors” to have their way, many other titles also would be absent from your local library. Remember reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” in high school? You wouldn’t find a copy in the public library. Ironically, both of George Orwell’s books that dealt with closed societies where censorship was the norm – “1984” and “Animal Farm” – also are frequent targets of challenges. So, too, is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Catch-22,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Lord of the Flies” and many more simply fantastic classic novels.
I do not read as much as I’d like to or as frequently as I should, but there are books I’ve encountered that have changed my life. The most exquisitely-written book I’ve ever read, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” is on the list. It’s a book I never heard of until I found it on a summer reading list for an advanced placement class I took in high school, and even with the story aside, the way Ellison crafts his sentences encompasses a grace that I wish I could mimic in my own work. Another of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, makes the list several times for “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Cat’s Cradle.”
In other words, the list of books that have been challenged or banned is without merit; books about baby penguins and classics about homoerotic manslaughter are odd pairings for any literary list.
Oh, and fellow Southerners, you ought to give a damn about this: Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” is the 26th most banned or challenged classic book.
Because these are books that are being removed from libraries rather than bookstores, it’s worth noting that the content and messages of these books are being taken from the reach of people who use libraries rather than bookstores. It is not necessarily the case that the affluent do not use libraries, but those who can afford to often purchase books or buy an e-reader version so they have something to hold on to and share with others as opposed to digging through the stacks of the public library.
In other words, these books aren’t being banned for all of us, just those of us who can’t afford to buy them ourselves, and that’s tragic.
It comes down to personal freedom and self-control. We’re not talking about pornography here (which is what the library computers is for); we’re talking about literature, and titles that have proven so potent that they’ve been in print for generations. They are not providing a framework with which we should live our lives, nor do they claim as such. But they’re art, they’re a part of our national parlance, and we should not allow either ourselves or these books to be victimized by a vocal minority of self-proclaimed interpreters to police the shelves of our local public libraries. If you find something offensive – a new mother breastfeeding a starving man, for instance – then don’t read Steinbeck.
But don’t take it upon yourself to prohibit others from reading Steinbeck as well.