Angie Thomas with her compelling novel. (Teen Vogue photo.)
When a Tennessee school district last month removed from its curriculum Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic novel Maus, book banning was once again in the news.
I, like most avid readers, oppose book banning. (No surprise there.) If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. Nothing would make me read, say, an Ayn Rand novel, but others are welcome to do so. Some will even survive the experience. 🙂
Then there’s the matter of book banning often making the banned book more popular — as exemplified by Maus climbing current best-seller lists despite it dating back to 1980 (when it started to be serialized). It’s not a banner day for a book banner when there’s a sales spike caused by curiosity and/or people wanting to push back against narrow-mindedness.
Of course, the vast majority of book banning is perpetrated by people and groups on the right. Many conservatives don’t like books that feature anti-racist elements, sexual candor, LGBTQ themes, criticism of negative aspects of organized religion, “bad” language, anti-war sentiment, the depiction of violence that’s unfortunately so prevalent in real life, etc.
But liberals are occasionally in the book-banning camp as well, with one example being past efforts against Adventures of Huckleberry Finn spurred by discomfort with its many uses of the “n-word.” I hate that facet of Mark Twain’s iconic novel, too, even as the issue is complicated by knowing that the book showed “of their time” attitudes and that Twain was mostly anti-racist in Huckleberry Finn as well as in his personal views.
Why did Tennessee’s McMinn County school board ban Maus? Reportedly because the graphic novel contains some swear words, nudity, and suicide. Disturbing to some, sure, but, as Art Spiegelman has noted, the Holocaust was disturbing. Way, way beyond disturbing. If anything, Spiegelman often underplayed things in Maus, from my memory of reading it many years ago. I much more recently read Herman Wouk’s superb War and Remembrance, and the explicit concentration camp and gas chamber scenes in that novel will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The Nazis, of course, banned various books and burned enough copies of them to make the doings in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 look like a picnic. Among the Third Reich’s targets were All Quiet on the Western Front and other writings by German author Erich Maria Remarque, who was disdained by the Nazis for his admirable anti-fascist and anti-war views. Remarque had to flee Germany, and lived the rest of his life elsewhere.
Many other excellent novels have been banned anywhere from once to often. In some cases, banning happened to books that were sexually frank at a time when that was especially frowned upon — with D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) two prime examples. LGBTQ-themed novels, including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), have also been “cancel-cultured.”
Race can of course be a very fraught topic, as we’ve seen recently with conservatives pushing for students to be taught only history and current events that sanitize America’s virulent racism. One novel banned periodically since its 2017 publication is Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give because of its uncompromising depiction of racism and spotlight on an unjustified shooting of a young Black man by a white police officer. It’s a compelling book, and one really relates to its teen girl protagonist who witnesses the murder by cop.
Even the modern classic To Kill a Mockingbird has seen some challenges from people on the right who don’t like its lens on American racism and also (less frequently) from people on the left who don’t like the idea of a “white savior” (Atticus Finch) being the star of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. Well, maybe the co-star with his daughter Scout.
The Handmaid’s Tale has also had bouts with banning. Not a shock given that Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel depicts an nth-degree level of patriarchy and oppression of woman. Plus it’s clear that the author’s target is at least partly America’s far-right Christian evangelicals, who like to think they’re ultra-moral but are anything but.
Surprisingly, there’s also been some banning of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books because of their depiction of magic. Gee, as if young readers would take all that witchcraft literally rather than literature-ly.
I’ve read every novel I mentioned in this post, and they were all well worth the time. I learned a lot, I felt rage for and sympathy with victims of social injustice, and I was entertained. What a loss to be prevented from reading such works — although determined people can usually get their hands on banned books, whether in print or digital format.
Thoughts on this topic? Some of your favorite novels that have been banned?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about masks in schools and more — is here.