In the interest of time, instead of a book profile today, I’ve got an event to talk about! “The Most Famous Challenged and Banned Books” was a talk given by Dr. William Hutchings of the UAB Department of English at one of my local libraries. The audience was about twenty to twenty-five people of mature years. I was the youngest there by about thirty years. So, huzzah for all you older folk turning out to support the freedom to read! Dr. Hutchings teaches on British drama, but taught a special topics class on censorship last year. This event was an hour-long survey of the history of book bans, with some pretty fun stuff in there.
- Plato wanted to keep poets out of his republic because they were liars.
- In 1958, there was a big stink here in Alabama over The Rabbit’s Wedding, a picture book featuring a bunny with white fur marrying a bunny with black fur. Nice job, Alabama.
- John Milton made the argument that if reading banned books really caused depravity, the designated censor (who would have to read everything to see if it should be banned) would end up the most depraved citizen of all…
- The censor who allowed James Joyce’s books into the US did so with the announcement that they might make people vomit, but wouldn’t act as aphrodisiacs, so they were okay. (Vomiting = not nearly as bad as arousal, apparently.)
- Mae West was arrested and sent to a workhouse for a week over her play Sex. She there discovered that many of the inmates couldn’t read, and when she got out, she donated $1,000 to the workhouse to create a library where the literate prisoners could teach the rest.
- Oh, Alabama… this very year, Senator Scott Beason wanted to have The Crucible removed from high schools because it criticizes Joe McCarthy. We can’t be having that, can we?!
Fun facts aside, Dr. Hutchings’ thesis was, “It’s never about what it’s actually about.” You have to ask the question, “Who is trying to keep what out of the hands of whom, and for what reason?”
When you ask that question, you realize it’s not about black bunnies or violence or sexual content… It’s about defending the established order of things for some group — usually women and/or children — deemed unable to handle an idea or interpret it correctly. The objection to Madame Bovary wasn’t “we can’t talk about adultery,” it was that women shouldn’t hear about adultery. That casts the whole thing in a new light, doesn’t it?
Dr. Hutchings touched on the idea that reading is either a right or a privilege, and came down on the side of reading as a right. That doesn’t mean all books should be free, or that you should have the right to read on company time, or anything like that — it means that reading shouldn’t be a privilege bestowed by existing institutions. That defeats the whole purpose, because any censorship is already an attempt to maintain those institutions. Book bans are some privileged group of people trying to decide what thoughts I get to have, and that’s not acceptable.