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  • NYS Writers Institute

Read any banned books lately?

We're in the middle of Banned Books Week, an annual awareness campaign promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International that celebrates the freedom to read.

Do books actually get banned in America? Not lately. The "banning" of books doesn't mean they're seized and no longer available. Doug Archer, librarian and past chair of the ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee, explains:

Most books on the annual ALA list of banned and challenged books were "only" challenged, never banned. Even if some were removed from libraries, they are still available for purchase in bookstores. Therefore, censorship hasn't really happened because the government hasn't banned the books... Just because libraries and librarians have been so good at defending the freedom of the public to read as they choose, means that we're being dishonest? No, it just means we're doing our job.

In the past century, classics such as John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, and Allen Ginsberg's Howl, were frequently banned or seized. Alice Walker's The Color Purple and three of Toni Morrison's novels -- The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved -- have also been targeted by school libraries in recent years.

In March 1885, the Concord (Mass.) Free Library banned Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a year after its publication. The author was unperturbed and saw the notoriety as a marketing opportunity. He wrote: "The Committee of the Public Library of Concord, Mass., have given us a rattling tip-top puff which will go into every paper in the country. They have expelled Huck from their library as 'trash and suitable only for the slums.' That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure."

More recently, in 2018, the Duluth Public Schools district in Minnesota school district dropped Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird -- along with Huck -- from its required reading list because of the books’ liberal use of a racial slur.

Mockingbird encountered criticism since its publication in 1960. When the Hanover County School Board in Virginia, banned the book in 1966, tne board member called it "immoral literature."

Lee fired back in a letter sent to the Richmond Va. newspaper:

Monroeville, Alabama

January, 1966

Editor, The News Leader:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities, and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that "To Kill a Mockingbird" spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is "immoral" has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

Harper Lee

So how many banned books have you read? Here's an American Library Association list of some classics that have been banned, burned, challenged or seized:

  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger

  • The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

  • Ulysses, by James Joyce

  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison

  • The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

  • 1984, by George Orwell

  • Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

  • Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

  • Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

  • Animal Farm, by George Orwell

  • The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

  • As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

  • A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

  • Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

  • Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

  • Native Son, by Richard Wright

  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey

  • Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

  • The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

  • Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

  • All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

  • The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

  • Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

  • A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

  • The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

  • In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

  • Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

  • Sophie's Choice, by William Styron

  • Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence

  • Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

  • A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

  • Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs

  • Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

  • Women in Love, by DH Lawrence

  • The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer

  • Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller

  • An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser

  • Rabbit, Run, by John Updike

Read the reasons these books were banned/challenged, burned and seized at the American Library Association's Banned & Challenged Classics page.

More about Banned Books Week:


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