While not too many books get banned up here in fairly liberal New York State (although the folks who organized Banned Book Week assert that books have been challenged or banned (and sometimes burned) in every state in America), my first inkling that there were some books adults would rather I not read came when I was in fifth grade. I was a voracious and early reader. As a preschooler, I’d sit on the floor of the family room and read our encyclopedia, volume after volume. I was probably the only white, exurban four-year-old who knew what a kumquat was. In grade school I tore through the community and school libraries, then I started reading whatever my parents had around the house that looked interesting.
I’d brought one of those books to school. What looked interesting from my parents’ library was Robert Crichton’s “The Secret of Santa Vittoria,” a popular novel published in 1966 and made into a movie by award-winning director Stanley Kramer in 1969. It was a good story, about a small town in Post-WWII Italy that tries to hide its treasure trove of wine from a looting band of German soldiers.
I can find no record of its being challenged or banned, and apart from its references to torture during wartime, it was not exactly the stuff of controversy, or at least until my teacher saw it in my desk.
“Do your parents know you’re reading this?” my teacher asked.
“Yes,” I said. He looked at me funny, kind of squinty-eyed like he was deciding how to handle the situation, and then he let the subject drop. But I had a sense that I shouldn’t be reading this book. I didn’t know why. Was there sex in it? I can’t remember, but there probably was. Swearing? Probably, but I heard a lot of it around my house, so it was no big deal. Did somebody take the Lord’s name in vain? Since it was Robert Crichton, I wouldn’t doubt it.
I have read countless books since then, many of them on the list maintained by the American Library Association as the most frequently banned and/or challenged books of the 20th century, and many had been assigned to me by my teachers. Among these are The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Color Purple, 1984, Lolita, Of Mice and Men, Catch-22, Brave New World, Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse Five, The Lord of the Rings (which was burned in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 2001 as satanic) and the seemingly innocuous A Separate Peace.
I can’t speak for everyone out there, but the reading of these books did not corrupt my mind or person, and I consider myself much richer for the experience of reading them. Many of these works (and the others on the list) are brilliant, sparkling examples of literature that examines the plight of mankind in its evils and its glories. They capture moments in time, some we would rather forget. Like the Salem witch trials. Nazi Germany. American slavery. Japanese internment camps. The subjugation of women. The civil rights movement. Homophobia. These stories use language appropriate to situation and the time; they portray characters that are either victims to their (our) failings or villains in their (our) taking advantage of those failings. Maybe that’s why so many individuals and organizations over the last century have sought to ban these books. Because literature—especially great literature—is a mirror of a civilization, and it shows the utter humanness of us. And maybe some would choose to hide that from the next generation, either in a misguided attempt to shelter them or in a dastardly attempt to control them.