Banned-Books Displays Focus on the Perils of Censorship
The plain, brown paper covering the glass display case in the Orange Coast College library was guaranteed to pique curiosity.
In spray-painted black letters, the sign boldly proclaimed: “Banned Books Coming to Your Library.”
“They were intrigued,” said librarian Debbie Webb of her ploy to spur student interest in Banned Books Week, a nationwide campaign to focus attention on the dangers of censorship. By the start of the seventh annual Banned Books Week, the display case was filled with familiar titles:
“Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, challenged at Owen High School in North Carolina in 1981 because it was “demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, challenged in a New York school district in 1980 as a “filthy, trashy novel.”
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, banned from Freemont High School in St. Anthony, Idaho, in 1978, and the instructor fired.
Those and the other books in the display case are among the hundreds of titles contained in a list of books that have been banned or challenged over the years by individuals or groups who consider them dangerous or objectionable. The list was compiled by the American Library Assn., which monitors attempts to ban books at libraries and schools nationwide.
Banned Books Week, now in its seventh year, was jointly sponsored by the American Booksellers Assn., the American Library Assn., the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Assn. of American Publishers and the National Assn. of College Stores.
The national focus on censorship prompted similar exhibits of banned books in school libraries and bookstores throughout Orange County. (UC Irvine’s University Bookstore sold banned book T-shirts and distributed bookmarks and buttons.) Although Banned Books Week was Sept. 24 through Oct. 1, the banning of books is a subject Webb is so passionate about that she decided to extend the library display at Orange Coast College through the end of the month.
The theme of the weeklong observance this year was “Open Books for Open Minds.”
In an essay that accompanied the banned-book list this year, Bernard E. Rath, executive director of the American Booksellers Assn., described bookstores and libraries “as oases and storehouses of information for all Americans thirsting for knowledge and solutions.”
He urged librarians and booksellers to protest attempts to restrict information and to try to convince those who threaten First Amendment rights that “reading books will open their minds and the minds of their children. By doing so, they will learn that they need not fear words on a page and that books breed tolerance. Indeed, their freedom to live as they please within this society is ensured by those who do open books for open minds.”
In a separate list, sponsors of Banned Books Week named more than 150 books that have been banned or challenged from May, 1987, through May, 1988:
“Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, banned from a required sophomore English reading list at the high school in Napoleon, N.D., in 1987 after parents and the local Knights of Columbus chapter complained about its sexual references and profanity.
“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, challenged as a required reading assignment at Pulaski County High School in Somerset, Ky., in 1987 because it is “junk.”
“Homemaking: Skills for Everyday Living” by Frances Baynor, removed from Alabama’s list of approved texts because it promotes the “religion of secular humanism.”
In her display, Webb included quotations from famous Americans who, Webb said, “have defended the freedom to read all things”:
President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953: “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal thoughts by concealing evidence that they ever existed.”
President John F. Kennedy in 1962: “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
Justice Potter Stewart in 1966: “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is hallmark of an authoritarian regime. . . .”
As a librarian, Webb said, she believes “that the libraries of America must remain free and open to all types of knowledge, even if we as librarians don’t personally agree with whatever the issue is.”
Although Webb has seen previous lists of banned or challenged books, she acknowledged that even she was surprised by some of the titles included in the list.
“ ‘The American Heritage Dictionary’ was actually banned in a library in 1978 because of ‘objectionable’ language,” she said.
Webb is equally amazed that the attempt to ban books “would still go on in our society when we’re supposed to be an enlightened society.”
As a child growing up in Los Angeles in the ‘60s, Webb read many of the books that are on the list, such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Webb believes that children should be allowed the freedom to read whatever they want.
“I just think it’s important for children and young people to have access to all kinds of information at whatever age they are. I think we should encourage children to read what they want because that is the only way they can make intelligent choices in life: to see both sides of issues, to see how different people think.”
Other books on the banned books list include:
“East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, removed from two Anniston, Ala., high school libraries in 1982 because it is “ungodly and obscene” but later reinstated on a restrictive basis.
“Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, burned by the St. Louis Public Library in 1939 on the grounds that “vulgar words” were used.
“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, banned from classroom use at the Scottsboro, Ala., Skyline High School in 1983 because of “profanity.”
“Wilt” by Wilt Chamberlain, banned from the Gaylord, Mich., middle school library in 1975 because students “are more interested in learning how to dribble and shoot” than in his off-court activities.
“A Light in the Attic” by Shel Silverstein, challenged at the Cunningham Elementary School in Beloit, Wis., in 1985 because it “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.”
“The Diary of Anne Frank” by Anne Frank. Four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee in 1983 rejected the book because it is “a real downer.”