It’s Banned Books Week! Each year, we English majors and readers get excited to celebrate books—especially those that have been banned or challenged at some point. The goal is to talk about the importance of letting people read books, even if they’re full of “dangerous” ideas and content.
With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite banned books, why they were banned, and why I like them.
1984 by George Orwell
The irony is heavy with banning this book, of course. George Orwell’s novel 1984 strongly warns against the dangers of censorship and the literal constraint of language, but that doesn’t stop some people from trying to ban it.
Parents in Florida challenged the book as being “pro-communist,” which is a great example of why people should read the books they want to ban. On the other hand, actual communists must have read enough of it to figure out that 1984 was blasting communism, as it was banned in the U.S.S.R.
Despite attempts to ban it, however, the book remains a classic and a personal favorite. I wrote a long paper about the attempts to control language in 1984 during my senior year of high school. (I wrote that paper in about a week, including research, so I’ll spare you any excerpts of it.) But Orwell’s novel struck me as such a powerful exploration of the dangers of totalitarianism and the thinking that leads to it, especially the importance of free speech and the right to freely talk, write, and read.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Awakening was published in 1899 and has been challenged off and on ever since. It was met with scathing reviews early on. Chopin was criticized for stooping to write “sex fiction” by the Chicago Times-Herald, and The Outlook deemed its “disagreeable glimpses of sensuality” to be “repellent.” It was recently challenged in 2011 in Georgia because the cover featured a woman’s bare chest.
The novel explores Edna Pontellier’s struggle to find and own her identity as a mother and housewife in the late 1800s. It draws on the same themes as Gustave Flaubert’s mid-nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary, especially the theme of wanting to escape from the constraints of society’s expectations and roles. Perhaps the most vivid image of this novel is the last scene when Edna walks out into the ocean…and doesn’t come back. It’s a beautiful image; you can read several meanings into it. It’s hopeful because she is finally free to make her own choice. It’s pessimistic because she gave up.
I first read this in high school and liked it and reread it in Modern Novels class in college. The thing that strikes me about this book is that both times I read it, I was young and naive and optimistic enough to think, “I’ll never feel like that when I’m married,” but now that I’m married, I understand. I’d like to reread this soon to see how my reactions to Edna and her thoughts differ from my reactions just a few years ago.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Admittedly, I haven’t read this in a while, but I was a little surprised to see Lois Lowry’s The Giver on a list of banned books. In fact, it’s one of the most frequently banned books in school. It was challenged as suggested reading for eighth-grade students in Missouri in 2003 as parents called the book “lewd” and “twisted.”
Again, it’s been a while, but I’m not sure where “lewd” comes in. “Twisted” is accurate though; the book’s dystopian world is messed up…which is kind of the point of the dystopian genre. Lowry was doing dystopian before dystopian was a thing, and this book was amazing to read as a child. Its picture-perfect, deep metaphors and setting are fascinating, and Jonas is a compelling character.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale has so many bans and challenges that its ideas are almost proven by the attempts to sweep the book under the rug. In 2006, it was banned (the ban was subsequently overturned) in Texas in an advanced placement English class after parents complained about its sexual content and said it was offensive to Christians. The Handmaid’s Tale was challenged as required reading in North Carolina in 2012 due to the book’s sexually explicit, morally corrupt, and violently graphic nature.
Much like 1984, the irony of banning a book exposing the what-if of fundamentalist Christianity taken to the extreme is ironic, as the rulers in the Gilead’s government wouldn’t like this book very much, either. Atwood’s discussion of society’s views and assumptions about women is vitally important. Although the book contains sexual content and violence, the point isn’t to glorify the abuse or assault of women, but rather to start a conversation about how to prevent these terrible things from happening in our society.
That’s why I like this book, despite how uncomfortable it made me feel. Yes, it made me feel uncomfortable as I started realizing that people in my church and school and country talk this way about women and share some of the same assumptions (although they’re not following those assumptions to the same conclusions as the Christian fundamentalists in The Handmaid’s Tale). And that’s kind of the point. Good literature makes you question everything you think you know about your world and yourself; that’s healthy and good for humans to do.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
It’s not shocking that people have banned Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The novel infamously explores Humbert Humbert, a self-aware and intelligent pedophile who kind of kidnaps his stepdaughter, 12-year-old Dolores Haze, and takes her on a road trip while seducing her. It was first published in America in 1958 and has the honor of being banned in multiple countries, including England, Australia, Burma, Belgium, Austria, and some areas of the United States. Recently, Lolita was challenged in 2006 at the Marion Public Library System in Ocala, Florida, for themes of pedophilia and incest being unsuitable for minors. (Of course, I’d agree that children and younger teens probably shouldn’t read this book.)
Here’s the thing about this novel: The writing is beautiful. Stunning. I was stunned when I read it. I mean, how can you not swoon over lines like: “Voraciously we consumed those long highways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors.”
And it doesn’t hurt that Nabokov had the type of synesthesia where words and letters were associated with colors, which means that he tends to use alliteration to its finest end.
So yes, the character Humbert is vile; but not all characters have to be likeable or even decent human beings for a book to be an enjoyable and inspiring read.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon has been banned multiple times, including in Texas in 2014 for profanity, sexual content, and incest, as well as in Indiana in 2010 for the same reasons. But the book is also consistently listed on AP English Literature exams and reading lists in preparation for the exam.
Honestly, I don’t know that I would have gotten much out of this book before college. It’s definitely not for immature readers. But it’s a beautiful novel, gorgeous and fluid in its prose, mythical in its scenes and images. I was so taken in by the novel freshman year of college that I barely wrote in it as I read. I’d love to reread it one of these days, and if you haven’t read it yet, please do.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges
Peter Hedges’ What’s Eating Gilbert Grape tells the story of Gilbert Grape, a boy in small-town Iowa who wants to leave but is tied to his family. This is one of the first books I remember reading about my home state, Iowa. I came across it the summer after I graduated from high school, highlighting nice phrases as I read it laying in the hammock in my backyard. The book itself didn’t leave a lasting impression on me, but it certainly affected me that summer as I prepared to leave my home and go off to college.
The book was banned in Carroll, Iowa, in 2006 after parents complained that the book’s sexual content wasn’t appropriate for teenagers in a high school literature-to-film class. The Sioux City Journal interviewed Hedges about the ban. He was disappointed in the ban, as he noted the sexual content wasn’t the focus of the novel and that the themes of redemption and regret were more important overall: “I think what the book’s ultimately about is how we come back alive and how we navigate a treacherous terrain between our responsibilities to our families and our duty to ourselves.”
And those themes are important. They were important to me the summer before I left for college, and they’re important to readers today.