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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Column: Banned books

Greetings, bibliophiles: have you ever wondered about the history of naughty literature? Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t the only text to ever be banned in American public libraries. Let’s take a look at some others that have been deemed too spicy for public consumption.

Homosexual plot, sexually explicit narration and offensive language are the top reasons given for banning books in schools.

The 1748 novel Fanny Hill, by John Cleland, was the number-one seized piece of literature from United States mail during the height of the Comstock era. Comstock supporters believed that an author who described breasts as “two hard, firm, rising hillocks” shouldn’t be allowed to pervert America’s youth.

Cleland’s descriptions of Fanny’s hills (and her adventures into prostitution) didn’t only shock 18th century readers, but more contemporary readers as well. When Fanny Hill was challenged again in the early 1960s, the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court — who ruled that the book wasn’t altogether offensive. Fanny Hill might have been the last novel to be federally banned in the United States, but it certainly wasn’t the last book to be challenged or censored.

E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey has become a subject of censorship by librarians, who probably think phrases like, “Jeez, he looks so freaking hot” aren’t appropriate, linguistically or otherwise.

The Color Purple, written in 1982 by Alice Walker, is often subject to scrutiny because of its descriptions of incest and rape and especially explicit incestuous rape. What challengers don’t seem to realize is that banning Walker’s novel won’t put an end to rape, but instead silences the voice of a literary rape survivor.

The ultimate novel against government censorship, 1984 by George Orwell, is one of the most heavily challenged books in the United States. Orwell’s line, “Ignorance is Strength,” must have really rang true for those in favor of censorship.

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita, the story of a pedophile and his young subject, is under constant attack because its characters are just too damn believable. Nabokov’s novel confuses traditional sensual ideals — “Humbert was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith he longed for.” Censoring information won’t stop the world from being its sexual, violent and offensive self.

In his afterword Nabokov writes that we should be able to understand and appreciate the sensual without taking offense: “we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the ancients in expurgated versions.”

While concern remains over adult readings, the true battle rages around children’s literature.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is number one, in the past decade, for being the subject of book burnings, book challengings and angry pitchfork-wielding mobs. Opponents cite Rowling’s depiction of wizardry, homosexuality and childhood disobedience as reasons for taking the series off of shelves. These kind censors are just protecting children from an agonizing realization — not all 11-year olds get Hogwarts’ acceptance letters.

The Hunger Games, a series designed by the evil Suzanne Collins to manipulate children into a lifestyle of glamorous infanticide, has become a subject of contention in our schools. Should it be placed in the adult section, the children’s aisle or the bonfire?

Currently, Patricia Polacco’s children’s book, In Our Mothers’ House, is being challenged in a Northern Utah school district. To check out this book, about a family headed by two mothers, children must have signed permission from their parents.

Parents who disapprove of the book have complained that the text is an “advocacy of homosexuality.” It’s legal to restrict your own child’s reading, but taking a book out of public circulation infringes on the rights of others.

Last year there were 348 reported book challenges, but the ALA estimates there was a lot more — “for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported.” Book burning may seem like a thing of the past, but institutions are still censoring information, not only through books, but also through the internet.

Be aware that the First Amendment isn’t all-inclusive and our access to information isn’t completely unlimited. Freedom of speech remains an illusion unless citizens learn to support the validity of expression.

The books most often banned don’t inspire malice, but imagination. All books require us to look at the world from the perspective of another. Nothing gives us the right to destroy another person’s viewpoint, just because it doesn’t agree with our own.

KATELYN RINGROSE, who can be reached at knringrose@ucdavis.edu, discourages you from burning this column — The Aggie recycles.


  1. I finally get why the Kindle is such a great name for a tablet- because its ironic. Your article makes a good point how censoring publications on the internet is akin to historical practices of book burning. Imagine how boring life would be if we only had one book to read, and they put that book in every library, book store, motel room…


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