Today marks the beginning of Banned Books Week in the United States (September 25 to October 2), an annual event that, as the American Library Association website puts it, “celebrat[es] the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.” How very a propos: With right-wing extremism once again on the march in the U.S. as well as here in Canada (and even, sadly, here in Toronto), it’s important to reflect on the effects that censorship can have on the marketplace of ideas and creativity.
Indeed, if we think that the days of people expressing their bigotry and superstitions through censorship are decades behind us, we’re dead wrong. From crackpot pastors looking to burn copies of the Quran to public schools pulling The Origin of Species from library shelves, the attack on free-range reading is very much alive. And don’t think I put the blame entirely on the shoulders of the Religious Right: liberals have had their own checkered past when it comes to sequestering books because they offend our politically correct sensibilities. My feeling has always been that anti-intellectualism is never a neutral state – it’s always an attack on intellectualism itself and the freedom to think deeply and multifariously, regardless of which side of the political spectrum the attack is coming from.
With all this in mind, I present to you my Top 10 List of Banned Books. Sleazy, sexual, sexist, violent, blasphemous, racist – the list of crimes go on and on. Going through these works again last night, I had to marvel at how I count many of them among my favourites. I think it’s a fairly diverse list, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve all been held up at some point in their history as paragons of corruption and sin, and have been banned, burned, or otherwise censored.
- The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence. Canada’s religious right came after this Canadian novel not long after its publication in 1974, and Laurence was never quite the same again. In fact, The Diviners was the last full-length novel for adults she ever published, even though she lived for another 13 years. It’s hard to say, looking back now, what exactly got the churchies’ underwear in a knot – the extramarital sex, a woman who put her artistic ambitions ahead of the needs of her daughter, or the novel’s infamous “ride my stallion” line (page 365 of the mass market paperback edition, not that I keep track of such things). It doesn’t matter. The Diviners has endured, going on to be ranked #1 on various “best novels in Canada” lists.
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. Whenever someone says something silly like “men can’t write women characters” to me, I always point them in the direction of D.H. Lawrence. I’d argue that he knew just as much about the female psyche and its desires as Austen, the Brontes, Mansfield or Woolf. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, about a woman who cuckolds her war-vet cripple of a husband with a burly gamekeeper, probably holds the record for the longest ban for a contemporary novel , at least in England – 1928 to 1960. I read this novel only a couple of years ago, and for some reason went in expecting the sexy bits to be not all that sexy. Boy was I wrong.
- Multiple novels by Stephen King. Okay, I admit that this counts as more than one book, but it’s hard to limit oneself to a single King novel when so many of them have been banned. From the parental violence of The Shining to the 6-on-1 preteen gangbang in It, King has always pushed the boundaries of what society finds acceptable in books targeted at teenaged boys. Earning an annual eight-figure salary for at least two decades now, King has devolved into a sort of parody of a parody of himself in recent years. But his early works did ruffle a lot of feathers back in the day and found themselves excluded from library shelves around the world.
- A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. Ah, did you think I’d exclude my main man from a list this size? Not a chance. Burgess often went out of his way to offend people in his novels – women, minorities, the British populace in general – but this book was banned pretty much for its straight-up violence and dystopian world view. Much like King’s novel Rage (published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), A Clockwork Orange has often been accused of encouraging/glorifying senseless brutality among teenage males. Well, you know what I always say: come for the laddish violence but stay for the ingenious linguistic engineering.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I’m not going to say a whole lot about this one right now: 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication and I’m hoping to write a lengthy post about it before the year is up. But let me say this: to hear that this novel continues to be banned in certain areas of the United States merely attests to the sheer delirium affecting the brains and hearts of the hysterically intolerant.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. One of just a few books on this list attacked more by the left than by the right, Huck Finn continues to offend 125 years after its publication. I’ve never understood why some readers haven’t been able to get past the novel’s repeated use of the N-word and portrayals of a 19th-century black man, as these were vital to the accuracy of the time period about which Twain was writing. (Many people forget that this is a historical novel: while published in 1885, it was actually set in the 1840s.) Twain writes with a deep sense of empathy and passion in this book, and it is one of the most scathing indictments of slavery every published. People who censor (or even censure) this book on the grounds above give liberalism a bad name.
- Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. For me, the most memorable image from this novel is probably its most eyebrow-raising: that of Portnoy contorting his body into a position that allows him to masturbate onto his own tongue. (You may remember a similar feat achieved in the opening sequence of the film Short Bus.) This novel pulls no punches when it comes to describing the joys and follies of a teenage boy discovering his sexual appetites for the first time, but this wasn’t the only thing that got the censors up in arms. Roth has been accused numerous times of anti-Semitism (a “self-hating Jew” and all that) and a lot of the attacks seem to focus on Portnoy’s Complaint. But this is one of his finest novels, and not for the prudish.
- Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. No list of banned books would be complete without this landmark of world literature, which describes with stunning verisimilitude the twisted justifications and delusions of a confirmed pedophile. Nabokov was an expert at taking the kernel of an idea and following it all the way through to its conclusion, no matter where it took his writing. Lolita has always been accused of being too much – just too close to the bone in terms of its portrayal of child seduction and the mental machinations behind it. Like any good book on a banned list, Lolita ferries in an unmistakeable and relentless atmosphere of discomfort. Why? Because we are in Humbert Humbert’s head the entire time, and cannot escape his darkest desires.
- Ulysses, by James Joyce. Boy, ask me how proud I was of myself when I managed to finally read this classic back in 2003. Now here is an example of a novel where I felt that the sexy bits weren’t all that sexy. But considering the timeframe of Ulysses’ first publication (1918 to 1920) it’s not surprising that this book came under attack from entire governments for being scandalous. Joyce’s magnum opus is one of those books I admire for the sheer revelry of its risk-taking. In this case: the risk of having an 800+ novel set in a single day; the risk of portraying the entire human condition in a relentless stream-of-consciousness mode; and yes, the risk of delving in complex undulations of female infidelity. This book was banned and then heralded as a literary masterpiece. Today, most people are perfectly free to read it but very few people do.
- The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. The term ‘unflinching’ gets overused a lot when it comes to book reviews/summations, but it’s wholly earned in The Color Purple – and that, of course, is what got it into so much trouble. It’s not simply the abject violence in the novel that put it on the radar of censors; it was also the source of that violence. The Color Purple has been chastised for the negative light in which it portrays black men, which essentially means that this masterpiece of African American literature has been accused of racism. I’m of course baffled that anyone would see this book as anything other than a justifiable indictment of White America and its treatment of blacks in the South. Walker writes with beauty and with grace, even when she’s describing the most horrific of circumstances.
And how about you? What are your favourite banned books?