HARRY POTTER: When I was a kid, I would have died for a book, any book, even one on the banned book list — or maybe especially.
I settled for the neighbor girl’s Nancy Drew collection, but Huckleberry Finn would have been better. Today I would have gone for Harry Potter, who’s also on the banned or often challenged book list.
Passing Granada Books the other day, I saw in the front window display that it was Banned Books Week. Forbidden works were hidden in plain brown wrapping paper, only the titles peeking out, along with reasons they were on the list:
Harry Potter (“anti-family, occult, satanism”).
Huck Finn (“oppressive, racism, uses the ‘n’ word”) just as Mark Twain heard it back then.
The Catcher in the Rye (“obscene … filthy … blasphemous”).
To Kill a Mockingbird (“conflicts with values of the community”).
Inside on a table marked with yellow police-style caution tape were more books the bluenoses want to keep us from reading. Like Leaves of Grass. (Poor Walt Whitman’s poems are denounced by some as “filthy.”)
Even what many consider the greatest American novel, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, gets nixed.
And, of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a 1906 exposé of the lives of immigrants in Chicago and other major cities.
I also spotted Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her autobiographical account of childhood rape, racism, and sexuality caused it to be challenged or banned in schools and libraries.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is Dee Brown’s 1970s account of injustices, betrayals, and murders of Native Americans. (Scholars called it one-sided.)
Chaucer’s Books will also have a similar exhibit this week. The American Library Association (ALA) makes a big deal of Banned Books Week and the freedom to read, as it should.
Number one on its list of frequently challenged or banned books is, surprising to me, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. So what’s the rap? Jazz-age adultery? Literary critics may turn up their noses at what they consider an overrated novel, but other than that, is anyone really demanding it be tossed in the Long Island Sound? Fitzgerald took to drink and died thinking the book was a failure. But it’s been made into movies three times, all rated only 2½ stars by Leonard Maltin’s guide.
Also on the ALA list is that old target, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath about the woes of migrant Depression-era dust bowl farmers trying to survive in a hostile California. It was denounced as communistic, “a pack of lies,” and burned and banned. California farmers hated it, but Steinbeck won the Pulitzer and later a Nobel Prize.
I noticed that three works of my favorite author, Ernest Hemingway, made the ALA list: The Sun Also Rises (No. 18 on the most-banned list), A Farewell to Arms (No. 20), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (No. 30). Usually for sex and swear words.
Those who loved the film Gone with the Wind may be surprised to find Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, from which the movie was made, to be on the ALA frequently challenged list.
Critics pointed out that contrary to plantation life as depicted in the novel, slavery was not a bowl of cherries, and slaves were in reality not childlike, docile, happy folks. But we knew that, right?
What also surprised me was to find William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying on the list. While Faulkner is not the easiest of reads, As I Lay Dying does not have his usual sentences and paragraphs that run on and on for pages and pages. It’s also knee-deep in pathos, sin, and the like.
Addie, wife and mother, is the one who’s dying. The story, set as usual in his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, is told by 15 different people in 59 different chapters. Faulkner had a great affection for mint juleps, too great at times. He said he wrote the book from midnight to 4 a.m. over six weeks while working in a power plant.
Addie longed for peace of mind. “Sometimes I thought that I could not bear it, lying in bed at night, with the wild geese going north and their honking coming faint and high and wild out of the wild darkness …”
How could you ban someone who writes like that?