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‘Bad’ Books : Censorship’s Role Examined in Fullerton College Display

Hey, buddy. Wanna get your hands on a real hot book? This baby’s a sizzler. . . . We’re talking inflammatory. Been banned almost a dozen times, you know.

The title? “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.

Surprised? Strange as it may seem, Samuel Clemens’ children’s classic--like thousands of books through history--has had a reputation for raising some folks’ ire. Shortly after it was published in 1885, a librarian in Concord, Mass., banned it from her shelves, labeling it as “trash . . . suitable only for the slums.” In 1905, objecting to Huck’s unconventional attitudes, an administrator of the Brooklyn Public Library pulled the book from its children’s collection because “Huck not only itched, but scratched, and . . . said sweat when he should have said perspiration .” Libraries from Winnetka, Ill., to Houston banned the book in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s on the complaint that Twain’s portrayal of the runaway slave Jim was racist.

“Huck Finn” is among more than two dozen books featured in Fullerton College’s “Banned Book Display,” a collection of historic and contemporary titles that have been banned, burned or bad-mouthed by libraries, school districts and special-interest groups worldwide. The exhibit, curated by senior library assistant Julie Dillon, continues through Saturday in the school’s William T. Boyce Library.

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“Huck” keeps some unusual company in the show. Other books on display include “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” a pair of hefty tomes released in 1948 and ’53 by the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University (both were banned at U.S. Army post exchanges in Europe for having “no worthwhile interest for soldiers”), Roald Dahl’s children’s story “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (for encouraging greediness), John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

“Censorship is something that inevitably happens,” said Michele Fitzsimmons, the school’s public services librarian. “There’s always going to be something that someone doesn’t like and wants removed.

“The problem is that people like that think they’re doing all of us a favor, but instead they’re making decisions for the rest of us.”

The Fullerton College exhibit dovetails with National Banned Books Week this week, an 8-year-old public-awareness effort sponsored in part by the American Library Assn. and endorsed by the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book. According to campaign literature, the week’s purpose is “to emphasize that imposing information restraints on a free people is far more dangerous than any ideas that may be expressed in that information.”

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According to Fitzsimmons, book banning can be documented as far back as 387 BC and continues at a brisk rate today.

“When most of us think of bannings, we imagine Hitler and the book burnings, the restrictions of Communist Russia, (or) the Inquisition,” Fitzsimmons said. “You think it has to be better today, but really it’s a constant thing. Some of (the banning attempts) make it to ’60 Minutes’; some never make it beyond the library.”

The American Library Assn.'s Office of Intellectual Freedom reports about 500 incidents of censorship each year, added Fitzsimmons, with most complaints centering on political or religious content, obscenity and objectionable language.

J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” has the dubious distinction of being among the most-criticized books in the United States, receiving an average of four complaints each year since its 1951 publication.

One of the more recently banned books on display is Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” the tale of a boy and a tree who is willing to give all she has to make him happy. As the boy ages, he demands more and more of her until there is little left to give. In the end, the boy--now a bitter, lonely old man--returns to her and finds comfort and a resting place on her stump.

In 1973, the New York Times Book Review hailed it as a “parable on the joys of giving,” and according to Dillon, the book is often used in Sunday schools to teach generosity. In 1988, a Colorado librarian at the Boulder Public Library officially ousted “The Giving Tree” from its collection on the grounds that it was “sexist.”

Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple,” from which the hit movie was drawn, earned the broadest range of complaints of any book in the show. School officials from Oakland to Newport News, Va., accused it of, among other things, presenting “troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history and human sexuality.”

Sex and religion are always good for controversy, so Dillon has dedicated an entire case to books on those topics that have been banned or challenged: The Koran and the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament share shelf space with “God, the Universe & Hot Fudge Sundaes,” a young adult novel by Norma Howe that touches on evolutionism and creationism.

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Fullerton College’s Banned Book Display continues through Saturday at the William T. Boyce Library, 321 E. Chapman Ave. in Fullerton. Library hours are Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For information, call (714) 992-7061.


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