I recently read Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (1994) by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery about the wife of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (my religion). I’ve been on a bit of a kick in reading books about my church’s history, partly because of my involvement in the women’s discourses project at the LDS Church History Library, which has exposed me to some fascinating historical sources and wonderful information about nineteenth century women, and partly because of the many cultural growing pains we are currently experiencing as a faith community. In the introduction, the authors wrote about how the book had caused some controversy when it was first published in the 1980s (I had a newer edition), and that tidbit only made me want to read it more.
A few months ago, when my bishop mentioned some of the controversial aspects of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005) by Richard L. Bushman to me, I immediately got a copy of that book to read. When I hear a book is “banned” or “controversial,” I tend to be irresistibly attracted to it. I don’t believe in banning books, no matter how strange they might be, and I think some of the best books have been banned.
When I was a middle schooler, my mom got me a copy of A Day No Pigs Would Die (1972) by Robert Newton Peck. She got it for me expressly because it had been banned. I guess I get some of my rebellious streak when it comes to these books from her and from this early experience. I read the book and appreciated its contents. I felt slight apprehension when reading the infamous passage about the pigs on the farm mating, for which the book was banned, but it was disappointingly brief and lackluster in terms of being ban-worthy. I expected more gore or unspeakable badness from a banned book, but there you go. It turned out that A Day No Pigs Would Die wasn’t all that “bad.”
I recently reread The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, finding the final scene, in which Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a grown man, a starving man, mind you, moving and touching. I have breastfeed both of my babies and I identified with the pain of Rose of Sharon’s loss; therefore, I appreciated the symbolism of the mother as a giver of life a poignant redemption for the characters, suffering during the Great Depression. I was, again, very slightly shocked, but I was able to see the depth of that portrayal and the meaning it had in relation to the rest of the book. This book was banned for that scene. It was even burned! In fact, there’s a new book out about this called Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath by Rick Wartzman (read an NPR article about it here). I want to read it!
And then, when I was in college, I remember hearing about these Harry Potter books. I had no idea of the wonderful adventures they contained at that time, but I remember how crazed the nation was about these books. Their existence occupied many conversations among me, family members, and friends, without any of us having read them. In fact, the nation discussed them so much that they ended up banned as well, for promoting witchcraft. Of course, I had to read them then! I ended up devouring the first one and writing a book review of it for a folklore class assignment. The class was titled Myth, Legend and Folk Tale. I found much of the traditions we discussed in class within Harry Potter, along with an interesting parallel to the Cinderella story. I didn’t find anything remotely threatening to my religious beliefs or to my future children. Again, I didn’t understand the ban.
Do you agree or disagree with banning books? Do you find banned books irresistible? Which banned books have you read with pride?