If you’re a die-hard reader then a favorite subject is books that have been censored or even withdrawn, generally from libraries or schools, because a person or a group has taken umbrage with something about the oeuvre — most often language or sexual content.
In a recent meeting with Oak Bluffs library director Allyson Evans Malik to discuss the annual salute to banned books, commemorated nationally by libraries since 1982, we agreed that censorship hysteria over the decades has waned quite a bit, although new reasons for resisting a book still arise, some of which strike the more broad-minded of us as, frankly, lame.
For instance: A continuing resistance to the Harry Potter books comes from people made uncomfortable by the magic, aka witchcraft. Fine, be that way, but plenty of other objections to plenty of other books mount up. Native American writer Sherman Alexie received backlash for his 2011 young adult book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian” for sexually explicit bits.
I am lucky to be old enough to remember an anti-book epoch back in the 1950s, when all manner of novels were shunned at our borders. If someone sailing or flying into our country had in his or her suitcase a copy of anything by James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller, that contraband would be confiscated. Trouble was these naughty new postwar writers were fooling around with obscene language, sexually provocative scenes, and all other kinds of smut, and American censorship laws strictly forbade these new portals to literary authenticity.
Mostly Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Arc of the moral universe” does indeed “bend towards justice,” and books that have been set upon by indignant individuals always see the light of day, or perhaps never lose the light to begin with. At the Oak Bluffs library, the bright-eyed and industrious administrative assistants Carolina Cooney and Andrea Figaratto have set up a display table of books so famous and admired that the response of visitors runs something like this:
“Gone With the Wind?! The Great Gatsby?! Slaughterhouse Five?!” Answers are forthcoming from the Post-Its placed at the top of each book, alluding to the grudges once held against them. For example, GWTW stuck in some citizens’ craw for “immoral behavior.” Hmm, you remind yourself, there is that scene when Scarlett O’Hara traipses down her mansion’s wide staircase in her dressing gown for a morning-after goodbye with Rhett Butler. Immoral? You bet!
The reality is, although most modern-day readers may think of themselves as completely opposed to all censorship, there are always books that give us a new think. Of much controversy of late is the YA novel “13 Reasons Why,” now being produced as a TV series. The moment you learn that the 13 reasons refer to a list prepared by an already dead young protagonist, justifying her urge for suicide, you wonder if this needs to turn up on every teenager’s reading list. Psychologists have observed that the very subject of suicide is suggestive: If suicide has taken place in a family, for instance, the threat increases of another family member taking his or her life. Many of us are ready to give a shudder and perhaps go so far as to say, “No.” Or “No, thank you.”
Ms. Malik says people have lately been asking her if she’ll obtain a copy of the highly controversial book, “Dangerous” by bad boy of the right, Milo Yiannopoulos. Ditched by his publisher Simon and Schuster, he’s ended up self-publishing, and so far the response has been that, as catty and mean-spirited as he is, he’s also boring, according to reviews on Amazon. All the same, he can be witty about his “Daddy” Trump: He’s a “fabulously camp cultural figure. He’s the drag queen president! It’s easy to see why so many gays I know secretly adore him. All that pizazz and bluster!”
So will Ms. Malik send for a copy of “Dangerous?” In the office the other day, she nodded with an air of prudence and deep thought: “I’m not opposed to getting one copy. I believe we should all have access to whatever books inspire debate.”
Back at the display desk, Ms. Cooney and Ms. Figaretto point to their surprising relics of banning. Ms. Cooney’s favorite is James Baldwin’s “Another Country,” originally challenged for race, gender, and sexuality issues. Ms. Figaretto lifts up the adorably illustrated kid’s book, “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, based on a true story about two male penguins in captivity who developed a paternal attachment to a rock. Attending zoologists replaced the rock with an actual baby penguin. The usual same-sex marriage deniers launched a protest.
At other libraries around the Island, tributes to Banned Books Week were paid. The Vineyard Haven library had three separate areas devoted to adult banned books, young adult banned books, and banned children’s books, the last of which included “A Light in The Attic,” “Matilda,” and “In The Night Kitchen.”
In Edgartown, an adult display showed, among others, “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “The Kite Runner.”
West Tisbury, never a library to disappoint, had two displays, one on the round vestibule just as you step inside, and this purveyed the ever-popular banned book “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and “Lord of the Flies.”