This is Banned Books Week, which sounds like just another non-event to provide fodder for the talk shows on CSPAN.

But it caught my attention because I recently picked up a John Steinbeck novel at the public library and when I sat down to read it, I saw that someone had taken a black marker and blocked out offensive words.

Throughout the whole book.

I know that there are some people out there who would like to consider themselves our moral guardians. But I really thought this kind of nitty-gritty, in-the-trenches censorship went out with leisure suits and had been handed over directly to the Texas State Board of Education.

Well, I was wrong.

Along with some of the press that accompanied Banned Books Week, the American Library Association published a list of the 10 “most challenged” titles of 2009. They included To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Both are considered by many among the best American novels.

“Each year, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) receives hundreds of reports on book challenges, which are formal written requests to remove a book from a library or classroom because of an objection to the book’s content,” the ALA said in a news release.

“There were 460 recorded attempts to remove materials from libraries in 2009 and more than 11,000 attempts recorded since OIF began compiling information on book challenges in 1990.”

You can probably guess the reasons for trying to get a book removed from a library. Offensive language, sexuality and particularly homosexuality, and an incorrect religious viewpoint top the list. A common thread is “unsuited to age group.”

It would seem to be common sense not to place a book with “adult” themes in a children’s library section. The problem is that this reason is often used as a sort of blanket excuse to keep books out of the hands of children and teens for other, often political or religious reasons.

This issue has been debated since practically the inception of the country. Edgar Allan Poe was banned and so was Nathaniel Hawthorne. After Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885, there was an immediate debate about whether it should be banned.

When Mark Twain heard that libraries refused to stock the book, he was reportedly amused by the controversy and arranged for it to be sold door to door.

Huckleberry Finn was banned from the Denver Library in 1902, prompting Twain to write a letter to the editor of the Denver Post. He said: “There’s nobody for me to attack in this matter even with soft and gentle ridicule—and I shouldn’t ever think of using a grown up weapon in this kind of a nursery.

“Above all, I couldn’t venture to attack the clergymen whom you mention, for I have their habits and live in the same glass house which they are occupying. I am always reading immoral books on the sly, and then selfishly trying to prevent other people from having the same wicked good time.”

Interesting that a century later the same battles are being fought with as much gusto as ever. A bit of a surprise to me but not to Mark Twain, which is only one of the reasons he has earned a permanent and esteemed spot on the country’s library shelves.


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