In honor of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week (www.ala.org/bbooks), beginning September 21, the country will celebrate its essential, inborn freedom of reading literature. Banned Books Week highlights the profound importance of reading a book, yet it also draws the country’s attention to the harms of censoring reading material. Libraries, schools and bookstores across the U.S. will be throwing events throughout the week of September 21-27, sharing in the indelible message of communicating stories and ideas through literature, even if those ideas may seem unconventional or even downright preposterous.
To join in on the festivities, I have compiled a list of several books that have influenced, broadened, and shaped my life. All of these books have been under prosecution at some point(s) in history. Most of these books have become standardized high school reading material, and several works still remain under the threat of being removed from schools and libraries across the globe.
1) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, (1865)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a universally beloved children’s classic, that taught thousands of children that “everything is funny, if you can laugh at it.” The story’s essential plot tells the tale of a young girl named Alice, who follows a well-dressed white rabbit down a burrow, where she becomes transported into a wonderland type nightmare, and manages to encounter a multitude of wise-cracking anthropomorphic creatures, including a hookah smoking caterpillar and a shape-shifting cheshire cat. This book is a prime example of the literary nonsense genre, as the story plays with the character’s (and reader’s) sense of logic, and continually questions the line between dreams and reality. It has remained an extremely popular and relevant tale for both children and adults to enjoy, having spawned film and television adaptions, and having inspired both the art and music world (see Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”).
As a child, I found this bizarre tale strangely relatable, as it was the only book that could come close to mirroring my overactive imagination. It also taught me not to follow an adorable fluffy mammal down a dark burrow in the ground.
This whimsical classic has been banned multiple times throughout its history. The book’s most notable banning occurred in 1931, when the Governor of the Hunan Province in China deemed the material inappropriate for youths because “animals should not use human language, and that it was disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.” Strangely enough, religious groups throughout the United States used the same criticism when challenging “Winnie the Pooh” and “Charlotte’s Web.” I suppose they feared these cute, talkative creatures had a hidden agenda.
Favorite Quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
2) The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, (1850)
The Scarlet Letter is set in the scandalous world of the 17th-century Puritan-populated Boston, Massachusetts, where the story’s vilified heroine, Hester Prynne, must display her crime of adultery as represented by a scarlet letter “A” on her chest, thus becoming a social pariah in her Puritanical community. After Hester gives birth to a baby girl, her long-lost husband, who has been presumed dead at sea, makes it his mission to uncover the truth behind her adultery. The novel eventually reaches a shocking climax, as it makes striking parallels to the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.
The novel grapples with the heavy yet universal themes of repentance, dignity, legalism, sin, and guilt. It is also considered Nathaniel Hawthorne’s crowing achievement of his writing career, having been hailed as an indelible American classic.
The Scarlet Letter is a standardized novel in most high school curriculums across the United States, with an ever-growing audience of young people relating to the the novel’s poignant message of refusing to conform to rules and beliefs systems they do not agree with. Albeit, the subject matter would undoubtably be considered controversial and immoral following the novel’s release back in 1850, however, the book has bafflingly been considered too “pornographic” and “obscene” for school children in the U.S. as late as 1977.
Favorite Quote from The Scarlet Letter: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
3) A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, (1947)
A Streetcar Named Desire is the pivotal and volatile classic by American playwright Tennessee Williams. The play tells the story of a fading Southern belle, Blanche Dubois, whose grandiose life eventually loses all of its reality when she moves to the bustling city of the French Quarter in New Orleans, in order to live with her sister Stella, and Stella’s brutish husband, Stanley Kowalski. Tennessee Williams paints a fascinating character study of the dynamic and abusive relationship between the delusional Blanche, the submissive Stella, and the animalistic Stanley, which considering the play’s release in 1947, was both remarkably bold and controversial.
A Streetcar Named Desire was my first foray into the world of Tennessee Williams’ plays. It also created a lasting effect on my consciousness with its powerful and unrelenting character studies, and its tragic depiction of mental illness.
Williams’ play experienced a slew of controversy for its outwardly sexual content, including its implied depiction of rape. When the play’s film adaption was being produced in 1951, the film’s director underwent a self-censorship of the project, reportedly editing a number of scenes out of the film. This self-censorship was an attempt to help the film receive an adequate rating, and also in hopes of avoiding a backlash of complaints from the audiences of the 1950s.
Favorite Quote from A Streetcar Named Desire: “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. And it ought to be the truth. And if that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”
4) To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, (1960)
To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic of modern American literature, having become a truly iconic piece of Americana. Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize soon after the book’s tremendously successful release in 1960, and the novel remains a pertinent fixture on schools’ required reading lists across the country, and even more so, the world.
The novel is in the style of a Southern Gothic bildungsroman, in which the novel’s narrator, Scout Finch, relates the tales of her childhood to the reader from her current perspective as an adult. As she recounts her ten-year-old memories, she gives a fresh perspective on the characters and situations she encountered as a young girl, such as her reclusive next-door neighbor “Boo” Radley. The major themes in To Kill A Mockingbird include racial injustice, the duplicity of the law, and the gradual dissipation of youth and innocence.
The novel has been lauded for Lee’s courageousness in addressing sensitive issues which were (and still are) prevalent in the American Deep South, such as the injustices of class systems, human compassion, and the perceived ideals of gender roles. Despite these important themes, To Kill A Mockingbird has been subjected to many campaigns that work to remove the book completely from public classrooms, often challenging the novel for its use of racial slurs, and for its depiction of adult themes, such as sexual assault. The latest campaign to remove the book occurred in 2009, in a Secondary School in Brampton Ontario, Canada.
Favorite Quote from To Kill A Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
5) In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, (1966)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote has been deemed his magnum opus, in which Capote marries a fiction writer’s style of prose with the true accounts and details of a non-fiction writer. In this non-fiction work, Capote works to uncover the truth about the 1959 murders of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas. After Capote read a news report covering the murders in The New York Times, which stated: “A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged … There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut. Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15 1959,” he felt compelled to investigate the homicide.
Capote spent six years of his life writing and reworking the book, in which he interviewed a number of Holcomb’s residents, learned about the private lives of the Clutter family, and eventually interviewed the killers Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith. After the book’s release in 1966, In Cold Blood quickly became the greatest selling crime book of its time, in which Capote was celebrated as the primary pioneer of the genre.
The book also takes an intimate look into the complex inner workings of the psychological relationship between Hickock and Smith. The book’s controversial material has remained open for debate in high schools across the country. The latest protest occurred in 2000 in Savannah, Georgia, when a parent complained about the book’s depiction of sex, violence, and profanity, which was part of an Advanced Placement English Class.
Favorite Quote from In Cold Blood: “As long as you live, there’s always something waiting; and even if it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, what can you do? You can’t stop living.”
6) The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, (1925)
The Great Gatsby is a novel that reveals the hyperbolic romance and the eventual decay of the decadence and idealism that existed during the Roaring Twenties. The story is synonymous with the Jazz Age of 1920’s American culture, hauntingly describing the passions and tormented obsessions of the novel’s mysterious young millionaire, Jay Gatsby. At the novel’s core, The Great Gatsby works as a cautionary tale of chasing the illusion of the American Dream, and the subsequent destruction of that mirage.
Fitzgerald was inspired by the large parties he and his wife, Zelda, attended while living in Long Island, and wanted to create “something new –something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” The book received mixed reviews after its first release in 1925, however, the novel underwent a revival during WWII, soon becoming a staple in the American high school curriculum.
The novel experienced its fair share of controversy, such as its being challenged by the Baptist College in Charleston, South Carolina in 1987, being sited for its use of “language and sexual references.” The influence of the novel has surpassed its criticism, however, having been voted in 1998 by the Modern Library editorial board the 20th century’s best American novel, and the second best novel in the English language. As Mr. Gatsby would say, “Cheers to that, old sport!”
Favorite Quote from The Great Gatsby: “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
7) The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, (1951)
The Catcher in the Rye is probably the most notable depiction of teenage angst and alienation in popular American literary history. The novel focuses on its conflicted narrator, the story’s protagonist Holden Caulfield, in which we follow his mundane revelries during his Christmas break following his expulsion from preparatory school. His current limbo existence is both thought-provoking and strangely comical, as he recycles a number of words to describe people he dislikes, such as “phony.” An estimated 250,000 copies of The Catcher in the Rye are sold each year, which cements this novel as a definitive American classic.
The novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield has become somewhat of a cultural icon for teenage rebellion. In the novel, Salinger’s protagonist faces complex issues of identity, loss, feelings of social disconnection, and overall alienation with a sense of humor. After finishing the novel, I found myself strangely missing Holden’s absent-minded ramblings and piercing judgments. The brilliance of the novel, however, is in its creation of a seemingly present human being, filled with extremely relatable issues, regrets, and feelings of loneliness.
Although the book has remained popular since its release in 1951, it has come under quite a lot of criticism, such as its being challenged in both the Waterloo, Iowa, and Duval County, Florida public school libraries in 1992, because of the book’s “profanity, lurid passages about sex, and statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.” In another case which occurred in Marysville, California’s Joint Unified School District in 1997, the school’s superintendent removed the book altogether from the school’s library in order to get it “out of the way so that we didn’t have that polarization over a book.”
Favorite Quote from The Catcher in the Rye: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”