Each year the American Library Association hosts “Banned Book Week,” when they call upon the public to remember the U.S. has a history of trying to determine what we should be allowed to read. I remember as a kid turning the wire bookrack in Simpson’s Pharmacy, seeing those excitingly vulgar paperbacks with hot type banners: Banned in Boston. If the books were arty, the word, “unabridged” might convey a certain sauciness therein. Very desirable that was. I remember the owner of Aristotle’s Bookstore in Indianapolis being arrested for selling Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer under the counter. Aristotle’s was an academic bookstore not particularly known for its appeal to the prurient. Yet the state of Indiana deemed the book obscene and banned it. This was in the early ‘60s. I was in my teens and the only encouragement I’d need to read the book was to be told I couldn’t.
As a side note, Indiana is a funny state. There was a big kerfuffle about the musical Hair coming to town. It was nearly banned. Hair contains nudity. On the other hand it was the hottest ticket in the country. There was a fight among the citizenry between those who wanted the city to be culturally savvy — cool — and those who wanted to hold the line against savage appetites stealing the souls of our young. A number of concerned citizens just wanted the play and its message of love to go away. Producers were caught. If they went ahead, the play might be raided. Threats were made. The troupe couldn’t find a venue because of it. Eventually they worked it out. A strange compromise. The logic was this: Nude statues were legal. In fact there were concrete and marble penises here and there in fountains, for example — all around the city. And breasts. Same thing. Right? So, cast members would spend a moment in compete darkness, during which they would remove their clothing. They would remain PERFECTLY still when the lights were on, still like statues, the show could go on. It did.
Back to books attacked for political reasons. Indiana doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. It seems determined to uphold the rights of the uptights at the expense of the rest of the population. The state and another Republican governor made news again in its desire for mind control. Recently — that is 2013 — Indiana Governor and potential presidential candidate Mitch Daniels, who had no academic credentials, tried to get books by historian Howard Zinn thrown out of state university curriculums. Zinn’s sin was that he didn’t always portray the U.S. in a positive light. It’s true. It’s doubtful he could have portrayed Daniels in a positive light either. After terming out of office and needing a legit job, Daniels was appointed head of Purdue University by the school’s board of trustees — the same trustees he appointed while governor. Mr. Zinn, had he not died a couple of years earlier, would have found that bit of business historically interesting.
In another bit of irony, this time on the world stage, the people who run Guantanamo Bay have banned Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. In apparent homage to Mother Russia who originally banned his books, an uncharged Gitmo detainee was not allowed to accept a copy. They are allowed books — just not this one. Perhaps authorities didn’t want the detainee to make that Gulag connection. Next time, try Kafka.
In Texas, contrary to federal law, the state’s department in charge of criminal justice maintains a database of 12,000 banned books, many of them by the usual suspects “Slick Willie” Shakespeare, Big George Orwell and Norman (Tough Guys Don’t Dance) Mailer. Usually the only books banned in prisons are ones that explain how to make a bomb out of oatmeal or how to carve an AK15 out of a case of DOVE soap. But this is Texas.
This year, we will “celebrate” Banned Books Week from September 22 to September 28. Libraries and bookstores around the country will have special sections devoted to books that have been banned throughout the years. Among the many authors with that distinction are Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Maya Angelou, Kurt Vonnegut, William Golding, Richard Wright, Aldous Huxley, J.D. Salinger and Ken Kesey.
And here are a few of the 50 or so books, The American Library Association said were banned or challenged just last year:
Alexie Sherman, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Georges Remi Hergé, Tintin in the Congo
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Stephen King, Different Seasons
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Chuck Palaniuk, Fight Club
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Check out and support your local library and go here for a list of independent bookstores throughout the U.S.