Literature exposes individuals to lives completely unbeknownst to them. One can learn healing and compassion through Toni Morrison’s heartbreaking novel Beloved, or friendship and love through Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Books teach humans how to be human; they provide the space to revel in regrets and sorrow. As of July 2021, there are more than 4,000 banned books in the United States public schools. Since 1982, Banned Books Week, held at the end of September and early October, resuscitates literature removed from public library shelves and encourages students to explore works that some in authority would prefer to disappear.
This year the theme “Let Freedom Read!” was observed from Oct. 1-7. The Jane Bancroft Cook Library paid tribute to this celebrated week of literature through a raffle, where students wrote their names on pieces of paper and placed them in jars beside banned books that they would be able to keep if their names were picked.
“We have the display and conduct the raffle every year,” Research, Instruction and Digital Scholarship Librarian Jeffrey Thompson said in an interview with the Catalyst. “It’s a way to display books that have been challenged or banned somewhere and to encourage students to learn more about book bans and the importance of the freedom to read. The raffle helps generate interest in the display, and allows students to not only leave the library with a book for a specified check out time, but to add to their own personal collection.
“We promote the freedom to read and celebrate a diverse literature by having various points of view and people with different backgrounds represented in our collection,” Thompson continued. “Banned Book Week affirms the freedom to read, which is central to democracy.”
Thompson shares his passion for his job and his personal favorite banned books. “I find being a librarian rewarding because it allows me to serve and give back to my community and society and to help educate people. I don’t think events change how I approach being a librarian; the role of the librarian is to help individuals and communities with their information needs, that doesn’t change. I don’t think I can really single one book out, it’s a thing where you read a book and you enjoy it for different reasons. It’s hard as a librarian to say what is your favorite book even on a particular subject, there’s so many that I personally enjoy and some of them that have been challenged or banned: The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, The Sun Also Rises, The Sarah J Mass series, Court of Thorns and Roses.”
The process of banning a book in a public school begins at a local scale, with a complaint from a teacher or parent to the principal, who does not have authority to officially remove the book. If the complainant is not satisfied with the principal’s solution, they can file an official complaint to the School Materials Review Committee, who review the book and consider why it is being taught. Higher above is the District Materials Review Committee and then the Superintendent. If the petitioner is still unsatisfied, then the court gets involved.
In the 1982 Supreme Court Case Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico, 457 U.S. 85, the court split the vote on whether removing books from public schools violated the First Amendment. The court’s inability to make a clear decision muddied the future precedents on whether the right to receive information under the First Amendment extended to libraries. “Students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393 U. S. 503, 506, and such rights may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library. While students’ First Amendment rights must be construed “in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,” the special characteristics of the school library make that environment especially appropriate for the recognition of such rights.
Thesis student Eirinn Flanagan shared their experience of wanting a higher education in literature as the government upends certain written works.
“Book bannings, I think, are some of the dumbest things because they make the books more desirable. When a book is banned, it is automatically labeled and determined for you. So you’re going into this new book like, oh, this is already banned as something contraband, so this is already bad. In a lot of cases, I’m not just reading it because I’m interested in the book. I’m reading it because there’s something different about it. So when I’m going into this with ideas that are already predetermined as controversial, ideas that a lot of the time shouldn’t be controversial and should just be seen.”
Flanagan explained how their love for freedom in literature is what led them to love the subject, and now banning books takes away from that freedom. “I love literature. I’m dyslexic, and growing up I always saw books as something special despite my dyslexia. And so I grew up with a very positive relationship with books because of the idea of a story and that story can lead to anything and it’s a place of freedom. So I think the reason I love literature is because it allows for complete freedom.”
Flanagan specified how students can combat book bannings and stay engaged with literature deemed inappropriate. “I think libraries are extremely important and open source materials, so things like the Internet Archive Library, which does have books on it, allowing access to it and demystifying these books because a lot of the fear and hatred of these books and the reasons why they’re banned is because of a line or two and we take it out of context and then people get angry.”
Flanagan stressed the importance of opening a dialogue with books that might make some students uncomfortable. “I don’t think they should be banned because they open up a dialogue and a conversation and it also allows for counterpoints. You can see how a different group of people are thinking and so you can be like, okay, you’re thinking this, well, here’s a counterpoint.”
Reading books of different perspectives and lenses is the fundamental value of literature, to experience different people and lives. Flannagan’s favorite banned book is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and they shared a cool fact about the book’s original publication. “A special edition of Fahrenheit 451 came with a matchbox and the book’s spine is a striker. So you’re supposed to strike it and burn it.”
In 1982, Kurt Vonnegut’s SlaughterHouse Five was removed from public school libraries in California due to its violent and allegedly obscene language and sexual themes. It was one of the first books to be officially banned in public schools. The satirical World War II novel exposes audiences to the life of soldiers and how to enjoy the small aspects of life when death is rapidly approaching. More recently, in 2011, it was banned from public middle and high school curriculums in Missouri along with another novel, Twenty Book Summer by Sarah Ockler, for its sexual content and graphic language. Vonnegut, in response to a North Dakota school board chair’s 1973 declaration to burn all 32 copies of the book in his district, wrote this letter:
“I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people,” Vonnegut said. “If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life.”
Toni Morrison, 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the first Black woman to achieve this feat, is the most targeted author in public school book banning. Her novels, including Beloved, winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Sula and The Bluest Eye, center around Black women living in a post-slavery society. The themes of violence, sex and race have inspired countless crusades to censor her books in the classroom. Beloved had been a staple taught in Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature high school classrooms until parents complained in Eastern High School in Louisville, Kentucky in 2007 about the themes of racism and sex.
Morrison spoke at a banned book protest entitled An Evening of Forbidden Books at The Public Theater in New York City on April 5, 1982. She said: “I come from a race of people for whom at one time in this country it was illegal to be taught to read. White people who taught Black people how to read were taking the risk of being punished. I think the same sensibilities that informed those people to make it a criminal act for Black people to read are the ancestors of the same people who are making it a criminal act for their own children to read and I don’t see a great deal of difference between that. There is some hysteria associated with the idea of reading that is all out of proportion to what in fact happens when one reads.”
William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, winner of the 1980 American Book Award, depicts the story of Holocaust survivors and how humans process immense trauma. It is a book of the weight of guilt and being capable of receiving love. However, in 2002, La Mirada High School Library in California removed the novel from shelves after a parent complained of its sexual material. Students protested by signing their names in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which eerily resembles the censorship occurring in public school systems. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) along with the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) went to court on the notion that the school district violated a First Amendment right. The banning of the novel has since been overturned, but Holocaust books such as Anne Frank’s A Diary of a Young Girl, due to its sexual content, and Eli Wiesel’s Night , due to its violence and graphic account of the Holocaust, continue to be under close scrutiny.
Censorship of books takes away the fundamental right to knowledge. Students should have access to literature that provides experience and teaches them empathy and perspective from all sorts of people. The Catalyst encourages ferocious readers to head to the library, read a book deemed banned and transport themselves to a world completely unbeknownst to them.