by Lauren Fralinger, Learning and Research Services Librarian
How often do you think about your right to read? It is often said that words can change the world, whether they’re spoken aloud or written down. The First Amendment recognizes the power of words, enshrining our freedom of speech. But what happens when that speech is challenged? When we’re told we can’t speak out, can’t read words that might challenge our thoughts or give us new ideas?
September 25 through October 1 is Banned Books Week, a time of year designated to raise awareness of banned and challenged books, and an opportunity to understand the consequences of censorship. This year the week takes a thematic focus on diversity, celebrating diverse voices and ideas and shining a light on disproportionate censorship of authors from diverse communities.
Banned Books Week was founded in 1982 by Judith Krug in response to a sudden surge of challenged books. Krug, a First Amendment defender and library advocate, strongly opposed censorship. She felt that no one should be restricted from books or ideas, and that readers should have the freedom to develop their own opinions.
In the thirty-four years since Krug began her initiative, there have been more than 11,300 books challenged, according to the American Library Association (ALA). 275 books were challenged in 2015, which is lower than previous years. Some of the most frequently challenged books of 2015 included Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin, Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter, and even the Holy Bible, which appeared on the list for the first time. Books that involve topics of sexuality and religion often top lists of frequently challenged books.
If a book is challenged, someone is trying to keep it from the hands of readers. ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has reported the top three reasons for a challenge are: 1) the material was considered to be sexually explicit, 2) the material was considered to have offensive language, and 3) the material was considered unsuited for any age group.
Challenges by various groups have resulted in books commonly regarded today as classic literature being banned from libraries and schools across the United States: In 1957, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was banned from the Detroit Public Library for “having no value for children of today, supporting negativism, and bringing children’s minds to a cowardly level.”
Other classic works that have been banned include:
- Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, on the grounds of profanity and racially charged language.
- J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, described by detractors as a “filthy, filthy book.”
- First edition copies of Allan Ginsberg’s Howl were seized by the San Francisco customs for obscenity in 1957; however, after a trial the obscenity charges were dropped.
- John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was temporarily banned in the in region of California in which it was originally set for “alleged unflattering portrayal of area residents.”
- The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, was once banned by an Alabama textbook committee, deeming it a “real downer.”
Banned Books Week at Richter
Banned Books Week highlights these and many other influential works that have endured censorship, bringing together proponents of free speech, librarians, publishers, teachers, and book lovers of all genres. This year’s events specifically highlight the increasingly popular medium of comic books and graphic novels.
Come join us in September for a week-long celebration of free speech and great literature! Starting September 25, look around the library for books that have been challenged or banned – some of the titles may surprise you. And don’t miss our Read Out of banned and challenged work on September 28!
Throughout the week, you can also view a selection of banned, rare books at Special Collections. An exhibit near the elevators on the 8th floor will feature works by John Milton, William Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno (burned at the stake for his religious and scientific views), D. H. Lawrence, Allen Ginsberg, and others.
Exercise your right to read – check out a banned book from the library!