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Putting out Fires: Bringing Attention to the Importance of Banned Books

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Pitt chapter.

Banned books are a theme that many do not take the time to think about. For most, not consuming this knowledge and literature means not even knowing of its existence and subsequently not caring about its absence from society. In this gap, lies the issue that comes with banned books: a lack of information and perspective being spread across (mostly younger) generations. September 18-24, 2022 marked this year’s Banned Books Week in the United States. This week exists to serve as a celebration for all banned literature and the freedom to read. To me, it represents a social campaign to encourage increased visibility for these literary works. According to the American Library Association (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) “[in 2021] tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services, affecting 1,597 books…681 challenges to books through the first eight months of 2022, involving 1,651 different titles.” To understand the context of this, the average American [in 2021] reads 12 books a year. That means that the number of books that are affected in just 2021 alone equals approximately 133 times the yearly consumption of the average American reader. Hopefully, this piece will illuminate the importance of banned literature and its absolutely necessary place in our world.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be ‘allowed’ to read some banned novels and authors during my public school education in New Jersey. I was also fortunate enough to have educators supporting me that were both passionate and relentless supporters of the underdog, the silent POV and the hard topics that many people tried their hardest to avoid. One educator, in particular, my junior and senior year English teacher, Mrs. Lanza, came to school each day with a mission. She worked tirelessly and invested more time and work into our class discussions than I have ever experienced in my prior education. Using literature, she taught us how to be active participants in society and to look at the other perspective, even if it was not something you agreed with. These lessons were often facilitated by banned novels and poems, by authors like Kurt Vonnegut or George Orwell.

I want to take this space to say thank you to the educators that I have had, all of whom never let us go on without the knowledge of banned novels. Below are some banned titles and authors, along with brief summaries about their banning and content. I hope that this motivates you to expand your knowledge and pick up one of these titles. I promise the rebellion is a rush.

Fahrenheit 451 by ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 was initially banned in 2012 on the grounds of excusing and promoting suicide and suicidal ideations. While suicide is never the answer, many school administrators proposing these challenges do not understand the inherent symbolism of that creative decision. This novel follows the life of Guy Montag, a fireman turned into what some would argue is an ‘activist’. The role of the fireman in this dystopian society is to literally burn books in order to prevent varying opinions that would create overwhelming controversy in society. Montag lives in a society that strives to erase any type of individuality, beliefs, and interests. This is reflected simply in the name that Bradbury gives to his main character, Guy. He is just a man, nothing else because he isn’t allowed to be anything else but a ‘guy.’ After getting his hands on an illegal book, Montag is brought over to the side of the intellectual and he sees all of the knowledge, perspective, and life that has been withheld from him and burned out of existence. This concept is inherently reflected in the title of this article. Banning books is no different than burning them because either way they are being withheld from the new generation; shaping the future of this world in a way that the past sees fit. What kind of progress is that? Pick up this novel to see where this rebellion takes him, maybe it’ll give you an idea of where we are destined to end up, or not end up.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The first record of Catcher in the Rye being banned is in 1960 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, just nine short years after its publication in 1951. Many people refer to this novel as the “most controversial novel in recent U.S. history” and the initial banning came after the firing of an 11th-grade English teacher who tried to incorporate this novel into their curriculum. The book follows the life of Holden Caulfield and life after his decision to leave his private school early to set out and live in Manhattan alone. Throughout this novel, he constantly states that everyone around him is a “phony” and this drives him to the isolation and loneliness that so many teenagers feel as they mature. This bildungsroman, the journey from a lost child to adulthood, tackles so many important themes like the loss of innocence, mental health and the role of religion or spiritual beliefs. All of these themes contribute to the reasons why this novel is banned. There are voices everywhere saying, “why does this need to mention the red light and prostitution,” “why is my child being exposed to the harsh realities of mental health,” and “why does the education system let my child question their place in the world and how spirituality affects them.” To this, I say, “well, why not?” If you prohibit the growth of this generation, the experiences, the trials and tribulations, then what will we be left within 20, 30, or 50 years? This is a great novel to read if you want a relatable main character and to truly learn what the word bildungsroman means.

Kurt Vonnegut

Unlike the rest of the recommendations, this banned feature is an author rather than a specific novel. Kurt Vonnegut is most known for his provocative writing. Aside from his style of writing, he is also well known for his short story collections, his most famous being Welcome to the Monkey House, as well as his world-renowned novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Many people view this work as anti-war because he chooses to use his creative voice to shed another light on the tragedies that occurred during and after the Dresden firebombing. As a writer, Vonnegut channeled his own experience into his main character. His ‘provocative’ short story Welcome to the Monkey House brings a level of chasteness to literature that many believe are unnecessary to expose to high school students. However, the symbolism of this story speaks to a bigger issue that is necessary to spread to the younger generations. It has taught me to not just accept everything as it is just because that’s the way you’ve always done it and that life without pleasure, in whatever form you prefer, is sure to be a dull one. If symbolism and contrasting POVs are some of the things you enjoy, then be sure to look at some of Kurt Vonnegut’s books!

To Kill a Mockingbird By Harper Lee

Another of the most well-known bildungsromans is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This novel saw its first attempt at being banned as early as 1960. Across time, this novel has been challenged on the grounds that the topic of rape is inappropriate to discuss in a novel, that the use of racial slurs makes students ‘uncomfortable,’ and that the whole novel perpetuates a white saviors complex. While rape and racial injustice are both issues that come with complex emotions and discomfort, these are also issues that need to be talked about, debated and learned from. Without novels like this, how is any generation supposed to be better than the last? To summarize, To Kill a Mockingbird begins in a small town in Alabama, during the Great Depression. It follows Scout Finch through a few formative years of her life and truly shows her development over time. During this time, she is a bystander to the process of her father representing an innocent Black man in court after he was accused of raping a white woman and also starts to realize her long-time, misunderstood neighbor, Boo Radley, is not as he seems. This novel truly pushes the reader out of their comfort zone and allows them to see things from a POV most have never considered. No matter your age, gender identity, race or socioeconomic status, there is something to be learned from this novel. Grab a copy to encourage some self-growth and introspection.

The Great Gatsby By F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is largely mismarketed as a tragic love story when in fact, that is the farthest thing from what it truly is. While there are elements of love and sexually suggestive language, this is anything but a story about love, if anything it is about unrequited love. This novel was initially banned in 1987 due to its “sexual references and profane language” as well as the incorporation of violence, adultery and bootlegging. If these grounds sound ridiculous to you, that’s because they are. Though there are mentions of adultery, sexual relations and bootlegging, this novel is more about what they represent and how those values are engrained into the society of the twentieth century. The facade, the fallacy and the security of it all are what truly make this one of the best American novels. Through the eyes of Nick Carraway, we see, at face value, the glamorous life of the rich. And yet, in a whole other sense, we are also privy to the contrasting lives of Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan. Both are rich and yet never economic equals. Both are fighting for one girl and yet there is never any question as to who she will end up with. If you seek a novel that will keep you on your toes, but also requires some reflection and just a little bit of brain power, be sure to give this read. But do be careful, I hear the adultery and sin rub off on its readers!

To explore more banned book titles go to Ala.org. This website is a great resource for all things about the American Library Association so check it out! If you missed Banned Books Week this year, no worries! Read a few from the list this year and get ready for the festivities and resources next year from October 1-7, 2023. As always, happy reading!

Liz Acque

Pitt '23

I am a Psychology major at Pitt who loves to read and write. I love to use writing as an outlet and I think the art of storytelling is so important. Reading is the best escape for me and the way I typically choose to relax. Grateful to HC Pitt for giving me the opportunity to write!