Banned Books Week: Books Through Time

How does the historical context of a book affect the public’s reaction to it? Would a book considered objectionable in the 1960s or another decade be viewed more favorably today?

Dorothy: I think some things are more acceptable today than in the 60s, some things less. For example, there are a lot of books about gay or lesbian people today- sure, they are challenged or banned, but more are getting PUBLISHED, which says something. However, some things that were acceptable in the 60’s are less acceptable today. For example, smoking- the research on just how bad smoking cigarettes is didn’t come out until the 70’s, and people in the 60’s started smoking as young as 10. Over the next few decades more research came out about how ads and media affected smoking habits, and today most movies featuring cigarette smoking receive an R rating. So if books were rated like movies, a book featuring a lesbian couple might have been rated R in the 60’s, where a book with a 14-year-old chain smoking would be PG or PG-13, and today it would be the reverse.

Rebecca: Yeah there are definitely a lot of things that are more acceptable and more talked about now than they have been in various periods of history. When you think about diversity and representation and any book that is praised for having either of those things, you can assume that it would have been pretty heavily challenged before recent times. In the same vein, a lot of really unfavorable aspects of certain books (like racism, homophobia, etc) can be explained by contextualizing when they were written. For example, many of the greats (like Dickens) had real issues writing female characters that feel relatable to women today, and the easy explanation for that is that women lived in a very, very different world when he was alive so, naturally, they were written into the small boxes that reflected their actual experiences.

Madeleine: It’s an interesting question, really. For example, I love reading Classical Greek and Roman texts, but good grief do the women get a bad rap in the majority of them. Aeschylus writes Clytemnestra as this horrendous monster in his Oresteia because she dares to break the established female gender role and have the “will of a man”; Euripides’ Medea is a horrific, foreign monster who kills her own children in order to get back at her husband. While inexplicable to us in the 21st century, these women are products of both their time and the highly-patriarchal society in which they were written — i.e. Classical Athens — and there are plenty of even more-recently written and published pieces of literature which can seem “dated” to us in 2016.  In that way, books are portable time-travel machines, detailing to us, the reader, the attitudes of their published time and not necessarily verbatim, but through the lens of that author, as is their creative prerogative.


*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.

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