So, here it is: the end of Banned Books Week. We’ve discussed a variety of topics and hope that our readers are inspired to join the conversation or check out some of the books we’ve recommended. But now it’s time to get a little introspective and think about our own histories with Banned Books Week. Was this the first year we really engaged with Banned Books Week? Have we seen library or school displays of banned books? Do we celebrate by baking a banned book cake and reading Huckleberry Finn out loud?
Other forms of media have “ratings” and restrictions in place to keep them from younger audiences without parental permission. Books do not. Might this have something to do with the book censorship movement? Do you think age recommendations/ratings would be better than attempts to ban books outright, and why?
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?
Have you ever been offended by a book, thought it wasn’t okay for you or your peers to be reading it? What book was it, why were you offended, and what did you choose to do about it?
For Banned Book Week, we’re going to do something special: instead of our usual monthly podcast episode, we’re doing a series of roundtable-style blog posts. So, each day this week we’ll post our responses to various questions related to banned books.
Today’s question is: WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE BANNED BOOK?
For reference, we used this list.
Every year, I make a point to re-read one of my favourite book series’ of all time: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Consisting of three novels (Northern Lights — entitled The Golden Compass in the US — The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), this series marketed for young readers and young adults is a brilliant literary reversal of John Milton’s classic epic poem, Paradise Lost, even taking its own series’ title from the same poem:
Into this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave–
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,–
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
I love this series. I’ve loved it since I first picked it up back when I was in elementary school. However I often find it difficult to talk about this series without needing to acknowledge the…notoriety this series holds with many (usually religious) societies
and people. One publication actually called the His Dark Materials the “stuff of nightmares and worthy of the bonfire.” Wow. Them’s fightin’ words — and, for the record: I believe book burning is the stuff of nightmares and demonstrates nothing more than a level of ignorance and hatred so great, that there are not enough superlatives in the world that can, in any way, encompass it.
Bringing it more close to home, I can speak from experience the reactions that even seeing someone else reading this series can have upon the intolerant. While I spent my childhood in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, my young adulthood was spent in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. Now, when I started reading this series in New York at the tender age of around nine or ten, nobody bothered me about it. But come the age of seventeen-ish, when I picked up this book to re-read it? I got spewed with quite of bit of religious diatribe and verbal vitriol, a lot of it from people who hadn’t even read the books.
But despite all that, I don’t want to talk about the issues various religious groups have with these novels, or even the ridiculousness I have experienced over the years when people see me re-reading Pullman’s trilogy — you may take those as you will. Instead, what I want to discuss is the more insidious form of censorship that this series has experienced in North America: the invisible kind of censorship. I say invisible because, unless you were to own multiple versions of the series, or happen to like looking at books’ Wikipedia pages (as I do), you might not have known that several lines in the North American publication of the third novel in the series, The Amber Spyglass, were censored by the publishers.
CAVEAT EMPTOR: This post will contain spoilers for the His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, specifically details relating to the character arc of the protagonist in its concluding novel, The Amber Spyglass. You have been warned.
Personal observation: my chosen photo has never been more relevant than it is in this moment.
I went to Catholic school for 16 years. This provided me with a somewhat different school experience than many of my friends, and certainly with myriad stories that friends still love to hear about the different things I learned and the different classes I took than my public school peers. One such class was a morality class I took as a junior in high school, during which we discussed pretty much any topic under the sun, with special emphasis on the Big Ones. You know, the ones that come up in the news all the time.
Like Harry Potter. When I was a junior in high school I was waiting eagerly for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which would come out over the summer before my senior year. The Order of the Phoenix movie was released that same summer.
“Too vulgar,” “crude language,” and “inappropriate for a middle school audience.” What do those bring to mind? Maybe heroin use, prostitution, murder, torture? In the case of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, these complaints refer to a 14-year-old main character talking about erections and masturbation, and discussing how community members’ alcoholism affects his life.
Readers, you have been warned. This post is going to talk about erections, masturbation, and alcoholism. If that’s too vulgar and crude for you, you may want to avoid the Backroom Whispering blog this month, because we’re talking about books that have been banned or challenged for a variety of reasons.