Banned Books Week

We’re coming to the end of Banned Books Week. I tend not to remember when it is unless I happen to stop at the library, though this year I was reminded by my friend who’s a librarian (Hey, Mattathias!).

Whether you know when to expect it or not, Banned Books Week is an important event, reminding us of our collective impulses to try to control one another’s thoughts.


I was curious about what books have been banned, by whom, and for what reasons. Some books have been banned by many countries, while others are suppressed in only one or two. For instance, the novel Sophie’s Choice (by William Styron, 1979, later made into a movie staring Meryl Streep) was banned in Lebanon because of its positive portrayal of Jews.


Thomas Paine’s political treatise, The Rights of Man (1791), was banned in the UK for its support of the French Revolution. Paine was also charged with treason.


Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) was banned in Russia by Stalin, who understood it to be a satire based on his government. Many other countries banned it as well. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 60s it was almost banned by both the US and the UK.


Moll Flanders by Daniel DeFoe (1722) was banned from the US mail under the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873, which prohibited the transportation of works containing “obscene,” “filthy,” or “inappropriate” material. This is one I read in college, and I don’t remember it curling my hair, but from the full title you get an idea of why it upset the postal service: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent. 

Though regrettable, it isn’t usually hard to see the reasoning behind the banning of political books, or books that feature discussions of human sexuality, etc. But things get much stranger when we consider the many children’s books that have been (and in some cases continue to be) banned.


For example, The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, about a peace-loving bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight in the bull ring, was banned in many countries. Ferdinand’s peaceful nature did not sit well with Germany’s Nazi party, nor with the fascist government of Franco in Spain. I was interested to learn that in 1938 the book became the number one best seller in the United States, outselling Gone with the Wind.


China’s Hunan province banned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865) because the animals exhibited complex behaviors (talking, etc.), which might lead children to regard humans and animals on the same level, which would be “disastrous.”

Governments aren’t the only ones banning or attempting to ban books. School districts and community libraries get into the act as well. And it’s not only the folks wanting to ban Harry Potter because of the witches and wizards–others advocate banning Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn because it contains language which was common in its day, but is now highly offensive.

A Buzzfeed article summarized several dubious decisions: In 1928 The Wizard of Oz was banned in Chicago public libraries because of its “ungodly” influence “for depicting women in strong leadership roles.” In 1988 a Colorado library took aim at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because of its “poor philosophy of life.” In 1989 a California school district banned Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax for “criminalizing the foresting industry.”

I was interested to realize that there’s a fairly large intersection of the sets “books that are most often challenged” and “books most often assigned as classics.” Challenging can look a lot like controversial, and vice versa. Of course, there’s a lot that’s objectionable without being valuable. But I like being able to make my own determination on those sorts of issues, rather than having a government or a committee do it for me.

I liked what Perri Klass had to say in this New York Times piece:

“As a parent, I was dazzled when my daughter’s high school summer reading assignment was to choose a book ‘out of your comfort zone,’ however the student chose to define it. Because that is, of course, what literature does, and part of the glorious freedom (and human right) of literacy is the opportunity to journey with words well beyond your comfort zone.”

The summer is behind us for this year, but wouldn’t this be a good assignment for each of us anyway?


[Images:,,,, Wikipedia,]

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