“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” —Ray Bradbury
There are authors, such as Ray Bradbury and J. D. Salinger, whose novels have been assigned in schools across the nation for decades. A lot of these novels are considered modern classics and have become deeply imbedded in our culture. From the term “catch 22” to “big brother,” from Holden Caulfield to Lolita, it’s hard to imagine a world these books did not help shape. But while these books have been canonized, they have also been consistently challenged, and sometimes even banned. In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at a few of the novels commonly read in high school classes, and why they became so controversial.
Published in 1951, Catcher in the Rye is J.D. Salinger’s most famous work. Its teenage narrator, Holden Caulfield, spends three days alone in New York City after getting kicked out of four schools in a row. His adventures in NYC include flirting with 30-year-old women, watching a man in an adjacent hotel room put on an evening gown and even calling up a woman he’d never met but who (he’d heard) used to be a stripper, believing he can convince her to sleep with him (he doesn’t). The novel deals with issues of identity, sexuality and alienation, something most—if not all—teenagers deal with, so it makes perfect sense that it is taught in high schools. However, the book has been challenged almost from the day it was published. Reasons for challenging the book include (but certainly are not limited to) Holden’s profanity, blasphemy and sexual references. The book has also been challenged on the grounds that Holden is a poor role model for teenagers (he drinks, smokes and lies) and the belief that the book encourages rebellion. In 1960, a teacher in Oklahoma was fired for assigning the book (the teacher appealed and was later reinstated, but the book was removed from use in the school). Since then, it has been challenged, removed from reading lists and even banned in schools across the country, even as recently as 2009. Interestingly, in 1981, Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in America as well as the second most frequently taught novel in public schools.
Another favorite amongst high school teachers is Lord of the Flies, written by William Golding in 1954. The story revolves around a group of young, well-educated boys who become stranded on an uninhabited island. The boys elect a leader, Ralph, and try to govern themselves, but eventually regress to a more primitive state. Issues in the book revolve around human nature, individual wellbeing vs. common good and the fight between groupthink and individuality. The book placed on both the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list (#25 on the readers’ list and #41 on the editors’) as well as Time magazine’s 100 best English language novels 1923-2005. However, due mostly to the violence and profanity, it also placed #68 on the American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books of 1990-99. In 1981 it was challenged in a North Carolina high school because the novel is “demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal.” Since then, it has been challenged in schools from Arizona to New York.
I’m going to end this blog on a personal favorite of mine, Slaughterhouse-Five, written by Kurt Vonnegut. Written in 1969, it follows the adventures of Billy Pilgrim, a time-traveler and WWII soldier. Billy is taken prisoner by the Germans and placed with other POWs in a rundown slaughterhouse. He becomes “unstuck” in time, living his life experiences in a nonlinear sequence. He is abducted by aliens who place him in a zoo with a female. These aliens, from the planet Tralfamadore, have already seen and know every instant of their lives. They believe they cannot change their fates but can instead choose to focus on any given moment of their lives. Billy becomes convinced. The novel explores free will and fate, and the illogical nature of humans. Vonnegut also explores fatalism. The book has been the target of several censorship attempts, due to its tone and allegedly obscene content. In 1973, members of the board of Drake High School in North Dakota burned 32 copies of the book because they found it “objectionable.” Vonnegut himself wrote a letter to the board a month later, stating that the book burning was “extraordinarily insulting.” He goes on to say,
“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.”
The book has also been challenged in over 15 schools or towns across the country, despite being ranked 18th on the Modern Library list of top books of the 20th century. It is also considered Vonnegut’s most influential work.
While these books, and countless others, have been challenged or banned, they persevere because of the universal truths they speak about human nature. I hope that schools will continue to teach them, and others like them, for years to come. And even if you’re one of the few students who managed to get through high school without reading a few controversial books, it’s never too late.
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