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This column is vulgar

September 26th, 2013

I just want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy Banned Books Week. That’s right. Every year, those of us in the literary (aka nerdy) community take a full week to celebrate books that have been banned in various arenas around the world, and to remind us all to remember to defend our freedom to read.

Have you read any of the Harry Potter books? If you have, then you’ve read the most commonly banned or challenged book series in the United States in the past decade. Good for you. We should all read a few books that have sparked some sort of controversy.

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was banned in the U.S. from 1921 until 1933. That didn’t stop crafty readers from finding ways to have it smuggled to them from France, where its publication didn’t seem to cause as much of an uproar from easily offended readers.

Vladimir Nabakov’s “Lolita” was banned in the United Kingdom for explicit content, although today it is considered one of the great works of the 20th century. The novel “Black Beauty” was banned in apartheid South Africa because of the use of the world “black” in the title. Both “Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men,” by John Steinbeck, have been challenged and banned from school districts across the country.

The school board of Hanover County, Va. tried to ban “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the grounds that it was “immoral literature” (someone please explain that one to me), an accusation to which Harper Lee responded: “Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read … To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink. I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore, I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”

Not surprisingly, “The Catcher in the Rye” was banned for its use of vulgarity and “Slaughterhouse-Five,” by Kurt Vonnegut, first challenged in 1972, was eventually banned on the grounds that it was “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian.”

Perhaps the most ironic of all censorships is that of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” since it is a book that warns us of the dangers of censorship and book burning, whether it be literal or figurative. One school in California felt they couldn’t ban it because of the seeming hypocrisy and chose, instead, to simply black out every use of the words “hell” and  “damn.”

It’s surprising to think that in this day and age, we still don’t have complete freedom from censorship.

Of course, censorship is a tricky subject in a school system, because no one idea should ever be forced upon a child. Perhaps there are some books that have content that is better left up to the student to decide if they want to expose themselves to it, but that doesn’t mean that certain books should be removed from school libraries. If a school board has a problem with the content of a book, they have the right to quietly remove it from the curriculum, but it doesn’t seem right to remove the book from the school libraries.

They are also failing to realize maybe the number one common trait amongst the youth: rebelliousness. If a school board makes a fuss about a book being obscene and goes berzerk trying to remove it from the library shelves, odds are that students are going to get curious about the book and fight harder to be able to read it.

If you are reading “Lord of the Flies” and you can’t get past the violence and language and see the book for the allegory that it is and the deeper meaning that lies beneath the surface, then perhaps you need to open your mind and learn to engage literature the way it’s meant to be engaged. If the vulgarity in “Slaughterhouse-Five” isn’t allowing you to see the moral implications that the book contains, then perhaps you should consider reading something different.

The most surprising thing about the list of banned books from the past century is how many of those books we consider “classics.” We shouldn’t sacrifice teaching real literature just so that we can protect children and young adults from a few swear words.

There are certainly some books that I would never read because I know that I would find them terribly offensive and enraging (“50 Shades of Grey,” for example), but that doesn’t mean that I think they should be banned. I think that if a person wants to expose himself or herself to a certain kind of literature, that is a personal choice. School boards and libraries don’t  have the power to make those kinds of decisions for people.

So this week, in honor of banned books, go out and read something “vulgar” and “depraved.” And feel good about it.