These days, headlines are filled with news of book bans. School systems and libraries are challenging recently released, important books for “inappropriate” subject matter, language, and content. But book bans are not a new phenomenon. Many classic novels have been challenged for decades.
In 1939, John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath was burned by the East St. Louis, Illinois Public Library and barred from the Buffalo, New York Public Library on the grounds that "vulgar words" were used.
George Orwell's 1984 was challenged in 1981 for its pro-communist and sexually explicit content, alongside other subversive and dystopian stories such as Animal Farm. But 1984 has since become known as one of the most significant rationalizations for freedom of speech and expression.
Many well-loved and critically acclaimed books have been required reading in most schools for the past few decades. But in today’s current political climate, things are changing.
Here at Atlanta Vintage Books, we are always working to keep this classic literature on our shelves. “These books are so important,” explains Jan (store co-owner). “We sell everything from First Editions, for collectors, to paperback reprints for the everyday reader. There are some books that we need to have readily available - Vonnegut and Orwell and Salinger - the list goes on and on. To think that some young people may never see these books… that would really be a tragedy.”
We house over 80,000 books on two large levels. With dozens of well-curated, well-organized sections organized by genre, the store is filled with books representing decades upon decades of history. In most genres, from most every era, there are books which have been banned or challenged.
Despite being nominated for a National Book Award, Maya Angelou’s autobiographical inspirational work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most challenged books in America for its language and portrayals of violence, racism, and sexuality.
In 1986, a Wisconsin town banned Roald Dahl’s children’s classic James and the Giant Peach because religious groups thought a scene featuring a spider licking her lips might be interpreted as sexual.
When Charles Baudelaire’s collection of poetry Les Fleurs du mal was published in June of 1857, thirteen of its 100 poems were arraigned for inappropriate content. French lawyer Ernest Pinard, who had also famously prosecuted French author Gustave Flaubert, prosecuted Baudelaire for the collection.
Naked Lunch, the 1959 novel by American beat writer William S. Burroughs, is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, intended by Burroughs to be read in any order. The book was brought to trial on obscenity charges after a Boston bookseller was arrested for selling copies of it. The case was delayed until after the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Memoirs v. Massachusetts in March 1966, which confirmed that a “book cannot be held to be obscene in view of substantial evidence showing that it has literary, historical, and social importance.” Following this decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Court cleared Naked Lunch of obscenity charges.
At a 1962 symposium in Edinburgh, Burroughs argued that “Censorship is the presumed right of governmental agencies to decide what words and images the citizen is permitted to see. That is precisely thought-control.”
Banned Books Week, October 1-7, celebrates the freedom to read and spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. For more than 40 years, the annual event has brought together the entire book community, librarians, teachers, booksellers, publishers, writers, journalists, and readers, in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.