A banned book is a work of literature that, for one reason or another, some people find morally objectionable and thus not worthy of being read by the public. The present sample essay provided by Ultius is the first in a series of blog posts on the subject of banned books. This is part one of a sample research paper or dissertation that focuses heavily on the matter of banned books.
This essay will primarily introduce the concept of banned books and outline a few examples of important works of literature that were banned in the past. The essay will also engage in a brief psychological reflection on why people may feel compelled to ban certain books, as well as a discussion of what could be called de facto banning; these subjects will be pursued in greater depth in subsequent posts of this series.
Introduction to banned books
A banned book is a work of literature that is, by law, prohibited from being made available to the public. This practice has a long history, which will be discussed further in a post dedicated to this subject. For present purposes, though, it is perhaps worth considering the point at which the practice of banning books first emerged in the modern United States. A man named Anthony Comstock bears primary responsibility for this. As Mullally has written:
Using slogans such as “Morals, not art and literature,” he convinced Congress to pass a law, thereafter known as the “Comstock Law,” banning the mailing of materials found to be “lewd, indecent, filthy or obscene.” Between 1874 and 1915, as special agent of the U.S. Post Office, he is estimated to have confiscated 120 tons of printed works. (paragraph 6)
Over time, public school libraries have also become important battlegrounds regarding the banning of books; and laws have emerged that prevent parties from removing a book from libraries for the simple reason that they disagree with the content within the work, on the grounds that this would be a fundamental violation of the First Amendment protection of free speech.
It is worth pointing out that several books that have been banned at one time or another have since come to be recognized as indisputable classics of literature. Some examples of such works will be discussed below. The important point for now, though, is that given this interesting history of many banned books experiencing such dramatic reversals of fortune, people today tend to be a little more careful about calling for bans on books.
They may be more given to understand that whatever makes the books so objectionable to them may well be exactly why the books are of truly great literary merit. However, given that banning books has been a widespread practice throughout the entire history of literature, it will now be worth turning to a consideration of the main reasons why people tend call for bans on books.
Reasons for Banning a Book
According to Begley, the number-one reason why people have called for bans on certain books is that those books contain sexually explicit material. That is, the works portray situations between people that make some people feel extremely uncomfortable, to the point that they believe that it would be a danger to the public if such material were to be widely read.
Other key reasons noted by Begley include: offensive language, homosexuality, drug use, violence, and religious perspective. What all of these different issues clearly have in common is that their portrayal in books may either go against the grain of some people’s deeply held beliefs and values, or be potentially hurtful to sensitive persons (such as children, for example) who read such material without being cognitively, psychologically, and/or emotionally prepared for engagement with the relevant content. In a word, the books are objectionable to some people because they are edgy.
This also calls attention to the fact that all the various reasons for banning a book really boils down to the one single reason that Comstock formulated in his pioneering censorship campaign: namely, immorality (Blakemore). Of course, the question of what is and is not moral is a very complex one; and this will be taken up in greater depth in a subsequent post on banned books focusing on this subject.
For present purposes, it will suffice to suggest that when it comes to the practice of banning books, whatever is congruent with the dominant values of mainstream society is conceptualized as good, whereas whatever is at odds with those values is conceptualized as evil. For example, in a society in which homosexuality is a crime, the portrayal of homosexuality in a work of literature would be called immoral; and this would potentially be grounds for banning the book from public consumption. In short, the practice of banning books can be understood as a key weapon within the context of an ongoing culture war.
Example 1: Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies, written by William Golding, portrays the story of a group of boys who are stranded on an island, their efforts to establish a society among themselves, and the degeneration of that society into utter savagery. Golding clearly used the literary techniques and linguistic resources that would be necessary to capture this dark theme in an effective way. According to the American Library Association, though, this work was challenged in one set of schools
“because of profanity, lurid passages about sex, and statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.”
In another challenge, the book was reportedly called “demoralizing” due to its dark vision of human nature. There were many other cases like this. And in all of them, it would seem that people calling for a ban of Lord of the Flies were simply criticizing the book for what it was quite self-consciously trying to be: a sincere picture of the darkness that lives at the heart of humankind.
Example 2: Ulysses
Ulysses, written by James Joyce, was involved in what was probably one of the more famous censorship cases in the history of literature. A man named Archibald Bodkin was at the center of this matter. According to Birmingham (qtd. in Onion),
“Sir Archibald was a man of unwavering Victorian sensibilities. . . . On the rare occasions when he told a bawdy joke, he drained away the humor by delivering the punch line with a disapproving glare” (paragraph 4).
Small wonder, then, that Bodkin was unable to appreciate Ulysses, which is nothing if not a panoramic ruckus about the mess known as the human condition. The specific passage to which Bodkin objected, though, can be found near the end of the novel: it consists of a sexually explicit scene, narrated from the perspective of a non-very-educated woman. Rather than seeing humor or poignancy in this scene, Bodkin was only able to see filth.
Example 3: The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye, written by J.D. Salinger, is written from the perspective of a deeply alienated young man named Holden Caulfield. One interpretation of the protagonist would be that although he does a great many things that would be completely objectionable from the perspective of mainstream society, he nevertheless has what could only be called a heart of gold—a point that becomes especially clear in one scene of the novel that hearkens to the title of the work as a whole.
Of course, the people who have called for the banning of The Catcher in the Rye have had a considerably less charitable interpretation of Holden. As Banned Books Week has pointed out, some of the adjectives that have been used to describe Salinger’s work include the following: unacceptable, obscene, blasphemous, negative, foul, filthy, and undermines morality. All of this is, in truth, fully to be expected, given that Holden is utterly defined by his outsider status and as a matter of course expresses a deeply skeptical perspective on everything that mainstream society traditionally holds dear.
The fact that some people have always called so vehemently for the banning of books tends to beg the question: what are they so afraid of? Even if a book goes against a given person’s deeply held values, this would still seem to insufficient explanation of the truly hostile passion that certain books tend to evoke in certain people: they almost react as if they were personally in danger, or that their own worlds were in danger of falling apart.
In fact, this may not be so far off from the mark. The psychological theory developed by Sigmund Freud may be able to explain why this so. According to Freud, there is a powerful id, or natural uncontrolled life force, at the bottom of the human mind; and in order for society to function in a civilized way, it is necessary to constantly repress this id through the institutions of society and psychological conditioning.
The main idea is that if this id were ever liberated from such repression, then this would produce chaos and potentially even the downfall of society, insofar as the id knows no real rules of morality and only wants to follow its own pleasure.
In this context, perhaps the advocates of banning books do have something of point: perhaps “immoral” works of literature truly are dangerous, insofar as they could be understood as windows into the id, and potentially tools through which readers can get in touch with their own ids. If this were to happen on a large scale, it is entirely possible that society would in fact change in potentially dramatic ways.
And as people are invested in the current order of society, such a development would be disastrous for them. This is a potentially good psychological explanation of why the advocates of banning books often tend to take their crusades so personally, as if there were something vital at stake for their own lives. In point of fact, this actually may be the case.
The case of de facto banning
Finally, it will be worth saying a word about what could be called the de facto banning of books. This has to do not so much with books being formally banned at the legal level, but rather of society, culture, and the economy being set up in such a way that unorthodox ideas and perspectives may never be able to reach their intended audiences anyway. For example, only certain cultural perspectives are allowed into the mass media; other perspectives are often locked out not by law, but rather by economic considerations and/or simple ideological prejudice.
Likewise, the point could be made that there would no longer be any point in banning books, if there were no longer anyone who even wanted to bother reading a book. The practice of banning a book at least implies a certain respect for the power of the written word. In this context, the decline of the practice could mean one of two things. The first is that people are simply becoming more open-minded. The second, darker possibility, though, is that people are just becoming increasingly mindless, with the result that all works of serious literature will almost by definition be de facto banned.
This concludes the first part of the present series of essays on banned books. This essay has consisted of a general overview of the main subjects that will be covered in the subsequent parts of this series. There will be seven such subsequent posts. The main subjects for these posts will be:
- The history of banning books;
- The problem of immorality;
- The Lord of the Flies;
- The Catcher in the Rye;
- Psychological reflection;
- De facto banning.
Please continue reading Part II in order to delve further into this fascinating subject.
Banned Books Week. “Banned Books that Shaped America.” n.d. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. .
Begley, Sarah. “Here Are the Top 10 Reasons Books Get Banned.” Time. 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. .
Blakemore, Erin. “In Honor of Banned Books Week, Here Are the Most Challenged Books of 2014.” Smithsonian.com. 30 Sep. 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. .
Doyle, Robert P. “Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.” American Library Association, 2010. Web. 5 Apr. 2016. .
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. James Strachey, Trans. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.
Mullally, Claire. “Banned Books.” First Amendment Center, 13 Sep. 2002. Web. 5 Apr. 2016. .
Onion, Rebecca. “The Sniffy, Scandalized Letter that Sealed the UK Government’s Ban of Ulysses.” Slate. 12 Jun. 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2016. .