Banned Books: Should we burn ‘demonic’ books? Or, ‘obscene’ books?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Banned Books
Book burning fact and fiction Fahrenheit 451 and 1949 American comic book burning

BOOK BURNING FACT AND FICTION: Rad Bradbury’s novel and a later film called “Fahrenheit 451” envisioned a draconian government burning all books. But, in the lower photograph, church members in 1949 staged a mass burning of comic books in the American heartland.

Schools nationwide are starting a new academic year. Already choices have been made about what students can and cannot read. Today, I’m inviting you, our readers, to express yourself. Leave a comment below or share this column on social media (for example, use the blue-“f” Facebook button) and share your comments with friends. Either way, you’ve got an opportunity to be heard on this issue.

What would you do with books like the Twilight and the House of Night series that some are calling “demonic”? Should teens have access to these books in public libraries or schools?

If a Texas pastor has his way, they would be removed from the shelves of the local public library. Phillip Missick, pastor of King of Saints Tabernacle, argued in front of the Cleveland (TX) City Council that the public library offers too many books with demonic and occult themes, like Twilight and House of Night. Other religious leaders have joined in support, according to media accounts. These books are “dark,” Missick said. “There’s a sexual element. You have creatures that are not human. I think it’s dangerous for our kids.”

Some other local pastors agree with Missick: Reading these books will mess up the lives of teens.

The head librarian defended the library’s holdings, saying that books “should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury described a world in which book censorship ran its full course. It began with selective book banning at the disapproval of special-interest groups, and ended with mass book burnings and the prohibition of reading at all. The book’s title refers to the temperature at which book paper catches fire.

How about banning—or even burning—what some argue is the greatest novel of the 20th Century? That book is James Joyce’s Ulysses. It “was banned as obscene, officially or unofficially, throughout most of the English-speaking world for over a decade,” writes Kevin Birmingham in a new analysis of the book and its history, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses.

And, this “obscene” book was burned by government authorities—over 1,000 copies, says Birmingham.

Book banning and burning are microcosms of bigger issues. For Joyce’s Ulysses, says, Birmingham, “it was a dimension of the larger struggle between state power and individual freedom that intensified in the early 20th Century, when more people began to challenge governmental control over whatever speech the state considered harmful.”

Are today’s struggles over book censorship also the struggle between state (or religious) power and individual freedom?

Should we ban—or burn—books with demonic or occult themes?
Or, should all books be available?

Banned Books: What’s the No. 1 banned book in the last 10 years?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Banned Books
The American Library Association Banned Books Week

Want to find out more about the American Library Association’s plans to promote Banned Books Week this year? Click this ALA image to visit the group’s resource page for this year’s campaign.

Librarians nationwide already are getting ready for this year’s Banned Book Week—but are you ready? Can you identify the books that draw the most fire nationwide?

Recently, The Kite Runner and Chinese Handcuffs were on the educational chopping block at the public high school in Waukesha, Wisconsin, put there by a parent who objected to the “extreme violence” they depict. Just a few days ago, the Waukesha school committee rejected the parent’s challenge, keeping the books on the high-school reading list. But this is just the most recent challenge.

Do you know what book holds the top spot for the most frequently challenged and banned book? I’ll give you five choices. All of them made the Top 10 list of most frequently challenged books in the last decade. Can you spot No. 1?

  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green

Data on these and other challenged books are complied by the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association. (See the complete lists here.)

The most frequently challenged book—and the most banned—is the 4th one on my list of five books: Captain Underpants. It topped the list in 2012 and 2013. If you are not familiar with this series (it sold 70 million copies worldwide), here’s a brief synopsis from Wikipedia:

Captain Underpants is a children’s novel series by American author and illustrator Dav Pilkey. The series revolves around two fourth graders, George Beard and Harold Hutchins living in Piqua, Ohio—and Captain Underpants, an aptly named superhero from one of the boys’ homemade comic books, that accidentally becomes real when George and Harold hypnotize their megalomaniacal principal, Mr. Krupp.

The book was challenged (and banned) in many schools and libraries because it was considered insensitive, not appropriate for the age group, and it condoned (and even encourage) kids to disobey people in authority.

What do you think of the recent attempts to ban The Kite Runner and Chinese Handcuffs?

Are you surprised to learn that Captain Underpants is the #1 most banned book?

Are any books challenged or banned in your school district?

Banned Books: Is U.S. surveillance leading to self censorship?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Banned Books
NSA signs with flowers

NSA headquarters in Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, northeast of Washington D.C.

Banning books is one thing. It’s even more serious to influence what gets written in the first place. Self-censoring by authors was one of the outcomes in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as authors tried to avoid offending anyone. Eventually, books were banned entirely.

But self-censoring couldn’t happen today, right?

In fact, it’s such a serious threat that nearly 30 famous writers just sent a letter to the U.S. Senate urging changes in the way our National Security Administration (NSA) carries out mass surveillance on Americans. The list of top writers includes lots of writers familiar to high school and college students: Don DeLillo, Nikki Giovanni, John Irving, Tony Kushner, and even the writer better known as Lemony Snicket.

In their longer letter, the writers said: “Mass surveillance invades our private thoughts and lives, chilling speech and spreading fear and mistrust throughout a society. Mass surveillance is censorship.” As evidence, the writers cite a 2013 survey by PEN American Center, a branch of PEN International. PEN’s mission is “to protect free expression and to defend writers and journalists who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted or attacked in the course of their professions.”

Writers are very concerned about government surveillance, much more so than the general public. Over a quarter (28%) say they have “curtailed or avoided social media activities.” About one fourth (24%) say they have “deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations.” And, 16% say they have “avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic.”

One writer said he aborted a book project because he feared his research would attract the attention of surveillance authorities. The topic was “civil defense preparedness during the Cold War.”

Here’s what he said, quoted from the PEN report: “… as a result of recent articles about the NSA, I decided to put the idea aside because, after all, what would be the perception if I Googled ‘nuclear blast,’ ‘bomb shelters,’ ‘radiation’, ‘secret plans,’ ‘weaponry,’ and so on? And are librarians required to report requests for materials about fallout and national emergencies and so on? I don’t know.”

Is self-censoring a price we should be willing to pay if it means more security? Over a third of Americans (36%) in my national surveys agreed with the statement: “I am willing to give up any freedom the government asks me to give up in order to protect this country’s safety.” Half of all Americans disagree, with 14% in the undecided category.

Are you willing to give up any freedom the government asks you if it means better safety and security?

Do you know of any authors who are self-censoring?

Are the concerns expressed in the PEN report overblown or justified?

Banned Books: How about a book club—for banned books?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Banned Books

Banned Books Week Virtual Read-outPeaceful protest in defense of one’s principles is one of the core American values, as I describe in United America. In the political arena, it’s called critical patriotism. How does this same spirit play out in the literary sphere?

How about a book club devoted to reading only banned or challenged books?

A group of students at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago did just that. They call themselves “451 Degrees” in honor of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s book itself has been challenged and banned, which is ironic given that it describes a world where reading is forbidden and books are burned.

Members of 451 Degrees devote themselves to reading books that are challenged, controversial, or banned. The book club and the Lane Tech student body won the Illinois Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Award in 2013 for their protest of The Chicago Public School’s banning of Persepolis, a book by Marjame Satrapi. (Read more about the award here.)

Later this month, the American Library Association (ALA) is hosting its annual Banned Books Week (September 21–27, 2014). If you want to participate, you can. The ALA is inviting readers to make and post videos on the Virtual Read-Out YouTube channel in support of intellectual freedom. You can read from a banned book, or discuss a banned book and what it means to you. Celebrity videos are featured on the Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out. (Want to participate? Here’s the Banned Book Week Virtual Readout page with information for participants and links to earlier videos.)

What do you think of the 451 Degrees book club?
Would you support a similar club in your local school?
Do you plan to participate in this year’s Banned Books Week?

Enjoy this brief video that served as the official Banned Book Week Video Trailer last year …

Banned Books: Why are books challenged?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Banned Books
CARE TO READ A FAMOUS CASE STUDY OF BOOK BANNING? On Monday, in Part 1 of this series, I recommended Kevin Birmingham's new book about worldwide response to James Joyce's "Ulysses." Click this cover image to visit the book's Amazon page.

CARE TO READ A FAMOUS CASE STUDY OF BOOK BANNING? On Monday, in Part 1 of this series, I recommended Kevin Birmingham’s new book about worldwide response to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Click this cover image to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Book censorship is a time-honored tradition. Banning books is alive and well in America today. Today, we consider why books are challenged—the reasons cited by those who attempt to ban books in our schools and libraries.

What do you think is the main reason?

This week, as most of America’s schoolchildren are going back to school, we’ve examined new attempts to ban ‘demonic’ books, the No. 1 banned book in the last 10 years, self-censorship by authors in our climate of surveillance, and the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week this month and 451 Degrees, a high-school book club devoted to reading banned books. (By the way, I asked my son about Captain Underpants, the No. 1 banned book in the last decade. Had he read it in elementary school? “Yes,” he said. “It was kinda funny, but pretty stupid.”)

We conclude this week by considering the reasons why books are challenged.

There have been 5,099 challenges to books from 2000–2009, according to the ALA. Here are the main reasons why books are challenged. (Note that some books are challenged for multiple reasons, so the figures below don’t total 5,099.)

  • “Sexually explicit” material (1,577 challenges)
  • “Offensive language” (1,291 challenges)
  • “Unsuited to age group” (989 challenges)
  • “Violence” (619 challenges)
  • “Homosexuality” (361 challenges)

More challenges are made to books in school libraries than any other place, followed by challenges to books used in classrooms and then books available in public libraries. There are relatively few challenges to books used in college or in academic libraries, according to the ALA.

Are you surprised to learn that “sexually explicit” material is the most commonly made charge?

Of these five reasons, which one is the most important to you?

Which of the five is the least important to you?