A History of Banned Books, Part 1
By Natalia Radcliffe
Books have been around since the dawn of the written word – in one form or another. Their pages contain infinite number of worlds, all at a person’s fingertips. Books can inform, entertain, or inspire. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” aided the colonists in forming the United States of America. During WWII, “Mein Kampf” was considered the bible of Nazism, hailed by the Axis and condemned by the Allies.
Because books have the power to inspire change, some people are reluctant to house those that challenge the status quo, and this is when books can be challenged or banned. According to the website of the American Library Association, or ALA, under “Banned Book FAQ,” books are challenged when there is an “attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.”
As far as who initiates the challenge of a book, it can be anyone. The process begins when a person or group of people bring to attention a particular book they want to ban, whether it is at a school, university, or a public library. If leadership decides to remove the book, it is banned.
However, many challenges go unnoticed. ALA in their article “Top Ten Most Challenged Books Lists,” “surveys indicate that 82-97 percent of book challenges – documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries – remain unreported and receive no media.”
In 1939, the ALA started to take an interest in censorship, coming up with the “Library Bill of Rights” that year. A few decades later, in 1982, the organization launched the first Banned Books Week event.
Robert P. Doyle has edited the American Library Association’s Banned Books, a collection of thousands of titles that have been subject to censorship challenges. He says in an article titled “Books Behind Bars” found on PBS.org that in 1982 “the American Booksellers Association had their annual conference in Anaheim, California, and the ABA decided to put some books in a cage near the entrance to the exhibit area. Among the books they had locked up were Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ and ‘Doris Day: Her Own Story.’ … These were books that people had complained about: Doris Day’s book because its content was so shocking in contrast to her all-American image. ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ because it was ‘a real downer’ … and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” because they thought it preached bitterness and hatred against whites.”
This was the first time challenged or banned books were on display, which helped paint a bigger picture and spread awareness. The tradition has continued.
The state of California has had its share of banned and challenged books throughout the years. One of the first books to be banned in this state was John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Grapes of Wrath,” which was published in 1939. It is set in Kern County, based on the real California city by the same name.
Lynn Neary, an NPR arts correspondent and a frequent guest host on “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition,” wrote an article entitled “‘Grapes Of Wrath’ and the Politics of Book Burning.” It says, “When the book came out, some of the powers that be in the county thought that they had been portrayed unfairly; they felt that Steinbeck hadn’t given them credit for the effort they were making to help the migrants. One member of the county board of supervisors denounced the book as a ‘libel and lie.’ In August 1939, by a vote of 4 to 1, the board approved a resolution banning ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’ from county libraries and schools.”
People could be seen out on the streets burning Steinbeck’s novel after this resolution was approved.
Doyle claims common subjects that spark book challenges are sexual content, “issues of language or profanity” and “LGBTQ issues and racism.” He adds that “new ideas/themes/experiences that challenge the current orthodoxy will always be controversial.”