Title: Naked Lunch
Author: William Burroughs
Challenge status: Naked Lunch is #73 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #39 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: Labeled as obscenity in Boston, MA Superior Court (1965), the following year the decision was reversed by the State Supreme Court. The book was originally published in Paris (1959), but a U.S. version wasn’t published until 1962, purportedly due to concern over U.S. obscenity laws – Naked Lunch was one of the most recent books to be tried as obscenity. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of the Boston trial Mailer & Ginsberg are interviewed/deposed. Sounds like the California case (the book was also censored in Los Angeles) ended up getting overturned w/out going to trial. In Australia, it was banned by Customs after an imported copy was seized and labeled as ‘hard-core pornography’ (Port Adelaide, 1960); it was released from the prohibited list in 1973.
First line: ”I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch and uptown A train…Young, good looking, crew cut, Ivy League, advertising exec type fruit holds the door back for me.”
Welp, so, how to describe this without “spoiling” any of it? Let’s start with this: Naked Lunch is the most disgusting book I’ve ever read. I’m trying to decide if it’s also the most disturbing. Difficult to say, I’ve read a lot of disturbing books.
What does that mean? Reading it is kind of like having a really graphic, vivid nightmare of drowning, and as you struggle to wake up, someone is firmly holding you under. I can see what all the fuss was about with the censors, if ever there was a book that needed a trigger warning, it’s this one. I wasn’t looking forward to it, having several years watched quite a bit of a movie adaptation (I think now it was the Cronenberg one, but I’m not eager to confirm).
The study of thinking machines teaches us more about the brain than we can learn by introspective methods. Western man is externalizing himself in the form of gadgets. – William S Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Title: Brideshead Revisited
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Challenge status: Brideshead Revisited is #74 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #38 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: An interesting case. I could not find specific challenges, but everyone on the internet seems to quote the wording from ALA OIF verbatim, the “challenge” described there is blanket (not specific to Waugh’s book) but Very Severe. In 2004, Gerald Allen (R) brought a bill to the Alabama state legislature to “ban the use of state funds to purchase any books or other materials that “promote homosexuality”.” Allen’s argument is that the ban would not have constituted censorship, but instead was an attempt to “encourage and protect our culture”, and prevent the immoral ideas (i.e. homosexuality) to from spreading and facilitating the “re-engineering [of] society’s fabric in the minds of our children”. More coverage on that (failed) legislation here, here, and here.
First line: ”When I reached ‘C’ Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning.”
I had no idea what the book was about when I started reading, I kind of despaired when I got started because the book opens up on some vaguely military-esque goings on in London in the WWII range (I sure have read a lot of books about WWII lately), but it turns out this book had pretty much nothing to do with the war, and everything to do with high society pre-war leading up to WWII. In fact the first part of the book takes place at college (in Oxford), where aristocratic boys will be aristocratic boys.
Regarding the themes that might concern potential censors: the “homosexual lifestyle” is vaguely referred to, and not disapprovingly, but sort of matter-of-factly. The relationship between Charles Ryder (the main character) and his college buddy Sebastian is clearly some kind of love that borders on romantic but the protagonists never suggests any kind of actual consummation. Some of the male characters “take up” with other gentlemen; live with them, travel with them – but details are not discussed. Which fits in context: extra-marital affairs are also described off-handedly, fodder for idle gossip (the scandal!) but never described in depth. I expect the tele-series (featuring Jeremy Irons, looking very louche) probably sets-up that aspect of the narrative a little more explicitly (more info here: Brideshead Revisited Series).
Title: The Naked and the Dead
Author: Norman Mailer
Challenge status: Pulitzer prize-winning author Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is #80 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #37 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: In 1949, the book was banned in Canada and Australia – ostensibly for language, though Mailer was also mocked for his use of the word “fug” as a replacement for the more typical expletive. In Canada the book was banned by the Minister of National Revenue, who thought the book was “disgusting” (he hadn’t read it).
First line: ”Nobody could sleep.”
The book is impressive and imposing even quietly at rest, given it’s heft (721 pages). Mailer wrote the book, considered one of the best novelistic account of WWII, after a two-year term deployed in the Philippines. Mailer was only 25 when he wrote the book, which became immensely popular, though with mixed reviews as to the full quality of the book. Gore Vidal skewered it, and Mailer himself sounded a bit apologetic in his introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition (published before he passed away in 2007).
Regardless – the book weaves together a chorus of voices into a story about a platoon of American soldiers who are engaged in battle versus the Japanese for possession of the island of Anopopei. I understand now where Tom Clancy’s style might have emerged. Like Catch-22, the story takes form bouncing from point-of-view to point-of-view, and also makes timeline switches. The main story is told sequentially, from the evening before their first landing on the island, all the way through to a post-campaign wrap-up. Woven in are flashbacks, by character, to their lives before they had joined the Army, to provide context and depth.
They were dopes. And he was alone, a wise man without a skin. – Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead
Title: Rabbit, Run
Author: John Updike
Challenge status: Pulitzer prize-winning author John Updike’s Rabbit, Run is #97 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #36 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: Labeled as obscenity (for sex scenes and promiscuity) and banned in Ireland (1962) by the Irish Board of Censors, but apparently was allowed into circulation in 1967. This board, btw, apparently still exists – meets in secret BUT is required to review all submissions (some cheek whoever submitted a complaint regarding the Bible, in 1988). In the US, was challenged in Maine (1976) and Wyoming (1986) – the Maine students were allowed to read it if parents granted permission. (Well, the whole story felt remarkably like a field trip…)
First line: ”Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a back-board bolted to it.”
John Updike is a fantastic writer. His protagonist Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is so unlikeable, though. I would have rather been re-reading The Witches of Eastwick. Or watching Eminem playing the role of Rabbit in 8-Mile. Pretty much a lot of other things I would have done w/that time, but, I finished it so let me tell you all about it.
Rabbit is a character that is all “id” and no shame. Nearly a sociopath in tendency. In some ways, he’s exactly what every moralistic movie tells us about the high school popular stud sports star: that in 10, 20, 30 years he’ll still be reliving his glory days, always looking back at the zenith of his life’s achievements. Mix that cocktail with the sort of dull disillusionment of a young man’s late 20’s, after following in lockstep exactly what his parents probably thought he ought to have done: graduated, maybe spent some time in the military or in college, get a job, get married have a kid…and live happily and predictably ever after.
Title: A Separate Peace
Author: John Knowles
Challenge status: #67 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #35 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: Challenged in New York (1980 – Vernon-Verona-Sherill school district, AGAIN, what’s up VVS?) as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” Challenged in Pennsylvania (1985, Tennessee (1989), Illinois (1991), and North Carolina (1996) for offensive language/profanity. Also challenged in Illinois (different city, also ’91) for not only profanity, but also “negative attitudes”. (Hmm. Indeed.)
First line: ”I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.”
A Separate Peace is a lovely book, written well and subtly for young adults, about two teenagers at a private boarding school (pretty clearly a variant of Exeter) heading into their senior years. The book is compelling not only because it occurs not only at a pivotal time in the boys’ lives (as they are in the transition period between boyhood and adulthood), but also because it’s at such a specific point in time: during World War II.
In many ways this is a “normal” story: two boys who are best friends, but also rivals, negotiating their relationship through social and academic pressures. Part of the tension comes from the fact they care about each other so much – but “love” is not a comfortable expression, but also they’re not quite sure of each other. Ambitions and values are still fluid, not quite solid enough to make their alliance and brotherhood entirely comfortable.
Title: Women in Love
Author: D.H. Lawrence
Challenge status: #75 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #34 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: A-ha! was seized by John Summers (Sumner??) of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and declared obscene (1922). Check out this gig: the Society was chartered by the New York state legislature, allowing the group to search, seize and arrest…and get 50% of all fines levied in resulting cases. Hmmm!!! At least the conflicts of interest are writ large for this group established to police the morality of the public.
First line: ”Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen sat one morning in the window-bay of their father’s house in Beldover, working and talking.”
Let me just start off by saying that D.H. Lawrence has not just one but THREE novels in the Radcliffe Top 100 and they are ALL on the ALA OIF frequently challenged classics list, as well. I’d read one of them already (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), but, had to read at least one more to fulfill my summer project. Lawrence is a good writer but getting through some of these books is like getting through molasses.
So, Women in Love. Imagine, if you will, a classic Jane Austen set-up. Two nearly spinster (i.e. almost 30 years old) sisters who are frightfully well-bred, a little too educated, a little too proud for their neighborhood. They end up meeting their respective matches and go through a hyper-extended courtship, after which one pair ends up “happily” married and the other pair ends up in a longish-term love affair, not quite as happily. And then something bad happens, which, seems almost fated given the horrible karma associated with love gone bad.
Title: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Challenge status: Capote’s Edgar Award winning work (1966, for Best Fact Crime book) is #53 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #33 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: In Georgia (2000) challenged for sex, profanity, and violence. Banned, but later reinstated. In 2012, was challenged in California (a Glendale high school’s AP English curriculum) as “too violent for a young audience;”…but the school board approved the book for Advanced Placement students anyway.
First line: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plans of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.'”
In Cold Blood was hailed as the creation of a new genre, “true crime”. Certainly Capote evokes the drama of the heinous crime (nighttime home invasion and brutal murder of a family of four) and the resulting shockwaves that ran through the community and the nation, as investigators and neighbors waited for the criminals to emerge and be brought to justice.
If you’ve read or seen “Breakfast at Tiffany’s“, (one of Capote’s other famous works) you might be surprised that such a clever and urbane novelist would, inspired by a short article in the New York Times, opt to spend years painstakingly researching the details of a crime that occurred in the middle of Kansas. In fact the “nonfiction novel” was Capote’s last major work, though some short stories and articles were published later.
All right peeps. I’ve finished round 4…and the final home stretch has begun. Check the Summer of Banned Books project page for an overall overview. Banned Book week starts 9/22 (NEXT WEEK, YO), you can check for any local events here. Bill Moyers, co-chair of Banned Books Week, created this video essay in honor of the 30th Anniversary of Banned Books Week and for the Banned Books Virtual Read-Out.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Go Tell it on the Mountain
- Winnie the Pooh
- The Giving Tree
- Invisible Man
- Song of Solomon
- Where the Wild Things Are
- The Lorax
- Where’s Waldo
- A Light in the Attic
Reading all the kid’s books was fun, and a nice break from the heavy-heavy of banned books. Apparently, books that are controversial can’t just be profane and funny. They seem to be meaningful and thoughtful, and have great, weighty messages about life. Of course, the kid’s books – the best kid’s books – aren’t all fun and games either.
Ok. Last round. Turns out to be the hardest core round of all, “the books I put off to the last minute” plus some poetry. I mean, what’s up Walt Whitman? Leaves of Grass is almost 700 pages? *Couldn’t you have just written some haiku??*
So here it is:
- In Cold Blood
- A Separate Peace
- Women In Love
- Rabbit, Run
- Brideshead Revisisted
- Les Fleurs du Mal
- Naked Lunch
- Leaves of Grass
- The Naked and the Dead
- Sons & Lovers
I realized this morning that I have Norman Mailer sitting square between me and the end of this project so I’m giving myself to the end of Banned Book Week (vs finishing next weekend, as I’d originally hoped. It’s going to be a week of power-reading, that’s for sure.
Wish me luck!
Title: Where the Wild Things Are
Author: Maurice Sendak
Challenge status: The Caldecott Medal winning (1964) children’s book was Included on a recent article about classic children’s books that have been banned in America. Book #32 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: The book was (un)shelved for being frightening or “too dark” for young children, challenges also suggested that the book had supernatural themes. *Where* the book has been challenged recently is a bit vague, around date of publication “in the South” is as much as I can find right now. I would label this challenge as suspect except for the facts that as recently as 2004 Sendak made the ALA’s list of most frequently challenged authors and his book “In the Night Kitchen” was #24 on the Top 100 most frequently banned/challenged books of 2000-2009 and #21 for 1990-1999.
First line: “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another…”
Max has a temper tantrum and is sent to his room to go to bed, with no supper. In his imagination, he is wild, terrible, sets sail on his bed for an island where he is welcomed as the king of beasts, and they dance wild and terrible dances, and have monstrous fun. But then he opts to sail back home and awakens to dinner, and understanding that he’s been loved all along.
Title: Invisible Man
Author: Ralph Ellison
Challenge status: Ellison’s U.S. National Book Award winning novel, was named #19 on MLA’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, is #24 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #31 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: Generally for explicit accounts of profanity, sexuality, violence, and racism. Challenges on record in Pennsylvania (1975), Wisconsin (1975), and Washington (1994).
First line: “I am an invisible man.”
Invisible Man is Ellison’s brilliant, tragic, sharp, cynical, satiric, furious send-up of a young African-American man’s search for self in a jazz-fugue-like journey from the South to New York City. The protagonist, the self-proclaimed invisible man, is nameless and acts as a chameleon as he changes (not quite evolves) from a deferential college student into a worker in the military-industrial complex into a leader and spokesperson for the inspirational socio-political movement engineered by “The Brotherhood”.