Give Me Banned Books

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.

book burning

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?

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79 thoughts on “Give Me Banned Books

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  1. I disagree. Books are for people to think. By banning them solely on the literal context takes away the deeper meaning of the story. Grapes of Wrath is a great example! I personally love Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, who’s utopia is so close to ours it was banned in some places before being accepted. As well as Lord of the Flies, which exhibits savagery in young boys, resulting in deaths. Banned books open your eyes to the world around you!

    1. Yes they do! Bradbury’s book is interesting because of its very portrayal of book burning. I wonder if that was part of the problem when it was banned, that it “mocked” or criticized such behavior.

  2. I was surprised to learn that most banned-book challenges involve parents’ objections to books that schools require their children to read. That changed my thinking on the topic a bit. I had always imagined banned books to be the result of extremist citizens trying to impose their moral standards on the rest of the community. Instead it turned out to be moms and dads trying to protect their kids from an extremist school curriculum (in their judgment) trying to impose its moral standards on their minor children. That was a position I could at least empathize with. I was not thrilled to discover, for example, that my 7-year-old learned there was no Santa from a book her teacher assigned which made it explicitly and painfully clear.

    1. I can see how that changes things, especially your experience! How sad and traumatic. I guess my other reaction to this is that most of the parents I live around have very different ideas of what is acceptable than I do, and many times these parents haven’t read the material themselves. It seems to be fear based rather than information based.

      1. Very true. Like people objecting to The Hunger Games trilogy because of the topic. They suppose the books glorify teens killing each other for sport, when the opposite is actually true.

  3. Ha, thats so funny that Harry potter was banned! 🙂 I remember a few local churdh halls here in the UK banned yoga groups from using the village hall for yoga classes. Somehow they found a load of people bending and stretching ‘irreligious’.

  4. Emily, thanks, good post. I do not agree with banning books and I certainly don’t want them burned. When movies are “banned” by various crowds it assures a greater audience. I think many biblical movies that portray stories with a human light may actually fuel the “banning” for increased attention. As for books, I find the banned books often ask good questions or delve into issues that need vetting. I recall 10 years ago how Barbara Ehrenreich’s book called “Nickeled and Dimed in America” was required reading for incoming freshmen at University of NC. Some parents were in a tither over a liberal agenda. I read the book and would argue that every student needs to read this book as it shows them what not having an education looks like. I am glad you have a little rebel in you. Keep reading. BTG

    1. This might be my only rebellious side, but hey, it is a good one to have, right? 🙂 I can’t believe parents would be upset over Ehrenreich’s book! I always assigned my freshman comp students an excerpt from it as essay reading. I would think that college would be the place where students could engage with ideas and issues without the interference of their parents! Yikes.

      1. Good move to assign excerpts. This is one of my concerns over home schooling. While I am sure their are some fine home teachers, kids need to have others challenge their thinking. At least in my view, this is how they grow. I was proud of my son for knowing about the Citizens United decision and having an intelligent opinion about it.

        1. I agree. My thinking is that if they are exposed to a lot of ideas, then they learn critical thinking. I want my kids to be able to think through the ideas they will inevitably hear during their lifetimes, rather than protect them from everything and then leave them unable to decide for themselves or make sense of new information.

  5. I completely agree, Emily. Books should never be banned. What gives one person the right to ban another from reading words on a page? People have the ability to decide for themselves what is appropriate and what is not. And even if it is a little unorthodox or something that you’d rather not have read, its not going to harm you. It is words. On a page. There are clearly some very disturbed, control freaks out there who think they know what’s best for you and your brain to see.

    Although, like you, if a book is banned I do want to read it that much more than if its not. In that sense, its a good marketing tool, but otherwise, its just insane.

    Interesting blog. Thanks.

    1. Great points! I guess if you want a bestseller you should ask somebody to ban it, ha ha. I agree. Ideas can be dangerous, but we all have brains and should be able to use them to decide for ourselves about those ideas. Banning seems paternalistic.

  6. This is kind of a side issue to your post, but I wondered if you had read Red Water by Judith Freemen. I think you would find it really interesting since you have been reading about Mormon history. It’s fiction, but I believe it sticks pretty close to the facts.

  7. Emily, are all these books banned by your church? I come from a religious background (well, not very much of one) that as far as I know doesn’t often ban books, so I find that interesting, including their choices. I never knew Steinbeck’s book was banned by anyone. Of course, we’ve all heard of famous bannings by other organizations, like that of Huckleberry Finn.

    1. No, the two church books were not banned. The first one caused a lot of controversy in the 80s when it first came out, so reading about that reminded me of the banning issue and I kinda connected dots. Sorry for the confusion!

      1. I may not have read it carefully. Still, it’s interesting, isn’t it? to see what different groups ban. I understand that the Catholic church banned His Dark Materials, for example.

      1. The catalogue might be available in your local university’s library and it contains mini-essays on each of the items exhibited so that might be worth checking out. I think the curator/librarian Pearce Carefoote was working on or had published a book on the same topic. That might also be worth tracking down.

  8. This brings to mind that picture of two children, one holding a book and the other holding an assault rifle, and the caption says “One child is holding something that’s been banned in America to protect them. Guess which one.” It brings to the fore the utter lack of reason involved in banning books (and not tightening gun controls, but that’s a whole other discussion) when juxtaposed that way.

    1. I remember that ad campaign! Yes, it makes the issue stark and highlights just how afraid some of us are about ideas. I guess it is easier to control people through ideas than it is through force or guns. Thanks for reminding me of that one.

  9. Good discussion! I always had my high schoolers read Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men, as well as A Day No Pigs Would Die. Of course, I had to provide alternative assignments for some when we read The Crucible, too. 🙂 People are funny. If they could only see what their children look at on their phones now!

    1. Ha! What a great point. We may just be protecting them from thinking about tough human issues while allowing them to see the “really bad” stuff online. I’m glad to hear that you teach the banned and necessary books.

  10. That is a beautiful scene at the end of Grapes of Wrath, though too controversial to be included in the 1940 Oscar-winning movie. Shakespeare might have found it ironic that the allegorical portrayal of the “milk of human kindness” was considered unacceptable.

  11. I definitely don’t agree with banning books because, to me, it is tantamount to censorship and it obstructs freedom of speech.

    Re: reading banned books — I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was infamously banned for obscenity, as part of my English Lit. course a few years ago. I can’t actually remember the ‘obscene’ parts of the book, which I suppose shows how much things have changed since the middle of the 20th century. We aren’t as easily shocked nowadays. I’m sure that Fifty Shades of Grey (which I haven’t read and don’t intend to) is much more obscene than Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

    Another banned book I have read is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I love Russian literature and it is a wonderful book. The 2002 TV adaptation of it is good too!

    1. So true! Our standards have changed. I haven’t read Lawrence’s infamous book, but like you, I often forget the “obscene” parts. I’m not sure what that says about us or those who tend to remember them, but I find it pretty easy to gloss over and ignore stuff that might be offensive.

  12. I disagree with banning books and it makes me want to check them out to see why there are banned. The Canterbury Tales, Animal Farm, Harry Potter, Catch-22, Da Vinci Code, etc. to name a few I have read and enjoyed reading. Reading opens my world on so many levels and makes me think. Happy Reading 🙂

    1. Thought-inducing books (which includes most) are awesome! I didn’t realize The Da Vinci Code had some trouble, but I can totally imagine why. 🙂

    1. Wow…that is quite thought-provoking, especially since I have so much German heritage in my background… Actually, this is the first time I’ve even considered there might be validity to banning… Wow…thanks for sharing.

  13. Book banning is a great endorsement for me. If a book has been banned it’s fairly certain I’ll look it up and read it. Often I don’t hear about bannings until they’ve become unbanned again but I still read them to find out what all the hullabaloo was about. I get so curious about why someone would feel strongly enough to have it banned but I think you were right in an earlier comment reply that banning is often based on fear and not actually about content. And I’d say the fear is largely of sex or of differing religious points of view. Those two themes seem tantamount to banned books.

    1. I bet you’re right about those themes. And yes, a ban is an endorsement! It only makes me want to read it more. We all want what we “can’t” have and we are definitely more intrigued by something that is off limits. Human nature.

  14. I think the more you ban books, the more people would want to read them to…to find out why they were banned in the first place.

    I’ve read a lot of formerly banned books, though I’d have to see a list in order to identify them.

  15. History teaches us to beware what we purport to ban. Glaring examples immediately surface in my mind from the history of science: Galileo’s famous “Dialogo,” (“Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”) published in 1632 went against scripture in its Copernican description of a heliocentric “universe” where the planets revolve around the sun and not the earth. The Catholic Church not only banned the book, but brought Galileo before the Inquisition, subjecting him to “house arrest” for his remaining years. The Church officially pardoned Galileo in 1992. Enough said!

    1. Oh my! That is enough said. I remember reading about this a few weeks ago, and I just shook my head. It is funny how “threatening” ideas later become accepted truth.

  16. Banning books always baffled me, especially the fact that it’s still happening in 2014. If you don’t want your kid to read a book, don’t let them read it; don’t stop an entire school/library from doing so though!

  17. I think it is terrible that we ban books. As a culture we are becoming more and more censored. We are allowing people (gvmt) to make decision for us like what books to read, how much pop we can drink, if our kids can have a cookie, and none of that is anyones business but our own. If we can’t get it under control it will only grow.

  18. I’ve been following your blog for the past 6 months. You write well and have interesting things to say. I too am opposed to banning books. I especially don’t understand why the Harry Potter books were banned. Our whole family enjoyed them immensely.

    1. Thank you so much! I am happy you are reading my blog. I enjoyed Harry Potter immensely too! In fact, my husband and I used to “fight” over them when they came in the mail. And honestly, I see a lot of Christian and moral values related in their stories. The whole point is that love is stronger than evil, right? 🙂

  19. I remember my 5th grade daughter’s teacher questioning me at PTC about the “adult titles” she was reading. I was stunned that a teacher was concerned because an 11-12 year old was reading “The Grapes of Wrath”, “Tom Sawyer” etc. When I asked the teacher why she felt reading these titles wrong, she replied in her sweetest, almost whispering voice “as long as you are aware of what these books are teaching” I ended the conversation with a smile on my face and wondered what kind of cultural path we were heading down. This was about 20 years ago, and the path seems to be narrowing yearly.

    1. Wow, that surprises me! Usually teachers promote critical thinking and reading. The titles you mentioned don’t seem all that threatening to me. With my experience of reading and then rereading The Grapes of Wrath, I found that I understood almost nothing the first time I read it as a young girl. I don’t think the kids are picking up on everything we are afraid of them knowing anyway.

  20. Emily , a really interesting and pertinent blog. People (all of us) generally turn from and react adversely to things we don’t understand or things that are out of our comfort zones- hence banned books. But most of these books are the ones that have made sour reading lives what they are. For me it was Enid Blyton.

  21. A quite thoughtful and thought-provoking post, as usual, Emily. I agree with all these comments! I believe any prejudice/discrimination to be based upon “fear” as you stated, however it is manifested, banning and/or burning books being just one example. In addition, I, like you, read quite a few “classics”/adult books as an adolescent (Mainly because at that time there was basically no “YA” lit!) and didn’t even “get” many of the adult themes depicted. I believe we (as caregivers, as a society and/or culture) do our children such a disservice by NOT exposing them to alternatives and options, period! I personally never believed in raising my children to perpetuate my own beliefs and opinions, except what I consider to be the foundations of civility: mutual respect, compassion, kindness, self-motivated achievement, meaningful productivity, self-reliance… I believe it is this lack of “dissonance” in a person’s environment which creates people who cannot or will not think critically and learn to gather information, evaluate, and make thoughtful decisions. And that ability is the basis of a true democracy, in my opinion. Wow, you really got me thinking today! 😊

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Lynn. It sounds like your parenting style is similar to mine and to the way I was raised. We were exposed to a lot, but given the tools necessary to think for ourselves and make good decisions. I liked that I felt trusted with being able to think for myself. I think the concept of dissonance that you bring up is crucial. As to YA lit, I heard a discussion on NPR about whether or not it is a “real” thing or just a constructed genre to sell books. It was interesting.

      1. Missed that on NPR. (I love that network!) I was not raised in this way which I believe made me more determined to do the opposite with my own children. I think it’s fun to challenge others! Interestingly, as an adult, I find juvenile (e.g. Harry Potter), YA, and adult fiction all worthwhile. Though juvenile books tend to address more social and interpersonal issues now than back when I was young. The book club I facilitate selects books from all 3 of these areas for discussion.

  22. Emily, you’ve given your readers a treat again. In our Catholic Tradition there was even an index of forbidden books! When the Church tends to criticise books, they then become best sellers! You are not alone in your quest to read books that organisations ban. There is obviously a place for healthy caution about the content of books at times. For example, in our family we lost one of our siblings to suicide. So now, if we encounter books with suicide related themes, we tend to forewarn each other about it. There is room for honest and adult advice to other people about books. This functions on both the level of expert professional reviews and more casual tips from fellow readers. Banning books appears to be less helpful.
    For a time James Joyce was much criticised by the Catholic Church. I read his magnum opus (Ulysses) some years ago, writing two essays on it for a course. I’m still benefitting from reading Ulysses today.
    Thanks for you post. 🙂

    1. Simon, I’m so sorry to hear about the suicide in your family. You make a good case for warning each other about books that you know will trigger unpleasant memories and emotions. I’m all for that. I appreciate it when people in online discussion forums give me a “trigger warning.”

      And I am planning to read Ulysses for the BBC book list! It intimidates me, but your words make me think that I might actually enjoy it.

    1. I would definitely recommend Mormon Enigma. It is an academic historical study of her life, but fascinating if you’re into that. I learned a lot. I think you’d appreciate it!

  23. I completely disagree with banning books. Books are wonderful and I believe that they open minds, and bring education to many. People have their right to have their own opinion, but just because a book has a different opinion or view does not mean it should be banned. Yes, books can be very influential, and I personally read a lot which are very inspiring to me! However, a person controls their own thoughts, and can control their own opinions and beliefs. Just because someone reads a specific thing, it does not mean they will copy it or change their beliefs because of it. But even if they do, it is a person’s right to say, think and believe in whatever they wish. If a scene is not to someone’s taste due to their specific beliefs, it should not mean that a whole book is banned, as someone else might find it beautiful. It is all essentially down to taste and opinion, just because you do not like something, it doesn’t give anybody the right to ban it; I believe banning books, is a selfish act.

    1. Well said. I like the point you make about all of us being able to keep our beliefs even if we read about some other way of seeing a situation. It might help us refine our own sense of what is right and wrong. Thanks for commenting!

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