Saturday, September 29, 2007

Banned Books Week Begins Today

Today is the beginning of Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read, an annual event sponsored by the American Libraries Association.

As a librarian and a life-long library use, I'm a big proponent of freedom of choice in reading. Book banning has been with us for centuries, and alas, still is, although these days it's called "challenging" whether or not a book should be allowed in a public or school library.

Historically, books have been banned because of content or language, usually sexual or political in nature.

I've recently been reading the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, a Sanskrit sex and etiquette manual written 1700 years ago, but not translated into English until 1883, by the famous explorer Sir Richard Burton. His edition was quietly published by the Kama Shastra Society and remained "underground" for another eighty years. It wasn't legally published in the U.S. until the 1960's.

Fanny Hill or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland is widely regarded as the first erotic novel. First published in 1749, it depicted the life of a young courtesan with more detail than seen before. More scandalous, perhaps, is the fact that Fanny is "of a warm nature" and doesn't seem to mind being a woman of pleasure. The most shocking scene for the time is one in which Fanny observes the activities of two gay men, a scene Cleland swore he did not write, but which he claimed was inserted later in a pirated edition.

Both author and publisher were arrested for "corrupting the King's subjects", but were cleared and released. Fanny Hill was banned in the United States in 1821 and not cleared until 1966 when the Supreme Court decided it did not meet the standard for obscenity, i.e. "without redeeming social importance".

By today's standards, Fanny Hill seems fairly tame. The sex scenes are full of florid language and the kind of euphemisms that are so often criticized in historical romances, but there's never any question of who is doing what to whom. Since Fanny's true love returns at the end to marry her, giving the book a happy ending and redeeming her in society's eyes, may be another reading for the original banning. She didn't pay for her crimes against society.

That's one of the reasons E. M. Forster cited for his inability to get his homosexual love story Maurice published when he wrote it before World War I. As Forster explained the situation: 'If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well... But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime.' The book was finally published in 1971, four years after the English laws had changed.

According to the ALA site, a children's picture book titled And Tango Makes Three tops their 2006 list of most challenged books.

"Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s award-winning "And Tango Makes Three," about two male penguins parenting an egg from a mixed-sex penguin couple, tops the list of most challenged books in 2006 by parents and administrators, due to the issue of homosexuality."

Hm, what's the old saw about the more things change, the more they remain the same?

Similarly, books are still banned and challenged for political reasons. These include Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, among other classics. The Christian Bible has been banned in Malaysia and its publication and distribution are monitored and controlled by the government of The People's Republic of China. In recent years. Twain's classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been challenged for politically incorrect language.

So, celebrate your freedom to read this week. Pick up a banned book!


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