On Monday I wrote about my opinion of book banning. (To sum up: I am a librarian after all. Getting books to people is my job. Choosing what people read is not.) Today, a list of books that have at one point or another been banned or otherwise restricted that have influenced my life.
1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. This book wasn't actually banned, but it was heavily censored. The reviews were scathing, calling the book immoral, unwholesome, and socially unacceptable. It describes a woman having an affair and exploring her sexuality. It wasn't until the 1960s that it was widely read.
a summary, and how it changed me: The Awakening is the story of Edna Pontellier, a woman living in turn-of-the-century New Orleans. She is married to a fairly wealthy man and has two sons, but she is desperately unhappy. On a family vacation in Mexico, she meets and falls in love with another man. Back home in New Orleans, she begins withdrawing from her roles of housewife and mother, as well as her social obligations, eventually leaving her family.
I heard someone say she hated The Awakening because all it was about is a rich lady whining about how difficult her life is. I can see that critique. And my response to motherhood is nothing like Edna's. While sometimes it is complicated or painful or exhausting, I wouldn't trade my experiences as a mother for anything. But here is how the book influenced me: It illustrates the effects of how society painted (and still sometimes does) womanhood in an either/or light. Either you're a mother or you're not. Either you are entirely selfless or entirely selfish. Had Edna had the opportunity to have an and—mother and music aficionado, for example—then perhaps she could have found healthier ways of managing her problems. The Awakening encouraged my natural proclivities; I never wanted to devote every ounce of myself to my children, house, or husband, and Chopin's book helped me do this with less guilt. As it shows the devastating consequences of the social either/or construct of womanhood, The Awakening encourages me to see my life's roles in broader terms and to accept my need to be a mother and something else as well.
2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Banned because of language, racism, and violence. Isn't it odd that white people try to ban books because of racism? Which is usually perpetuated by white people? Also banned (in the school libraries in the county where the novel is set) for libel against how the government treated migrant workers.
a summary, and how it changed me: Steinbeck's novel is about Lennie and George, two friends who are migrant workers and find work at a ranch in Soledad, California. It is a short novel with fairly deep implications.
I read this in tenth grade and never thought about it much again, until I became a teacher and it was the book my high school had for tenth graders. Rereading, studying, and teaching Of Mice and Men changed me partly because it was my first time dealing with actual, live people protesting a book. I had many, many parents contact me with their concerns about tenth graders reading it. One parent even went so far as to tell me that I was an immoral person for teaching it; another told me that I didn't have to let the school district push me around, I could choose to teach something else.
Some parents complained about the language in the book; some about the violence and that ending. What I finally realized, however, is that what they were afraid of is that the book would lead their children to think in different ways. Of Mice and Men is a novel that expects you to wonder if "wrong" actions are always wrong. It asks you to think in morally grey areas. It demands both anger and compassion. And this sort of subtle, difficult thinking is objectionable to some parents because what if their children catch on that they could think about other things with the same not-black-and-white thinking?
My experiences with Of Mice and Men taught me that I value grey thinking. It is an important part of my identity to question things and to find my own understanding. I also learned that not everyone values those ideals, and this has to be OK (even if I don't understand black and white thinking). Sometimes living an examined life is painful and not everyone wants to experience that pain. But it will always be valuable to me.
3. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Can anyone overlook the irony of a book about book burning being banned? Too much swearing and contrary religious ideals are, it seems, the perfect reasons to not let anyone read something.
a summary, and how it changed me: A dystopian novel set in a society where it is illegal to own books. Firemen don't put out fires, but set them, burning books where they find them.
Aside from the fact that when I read this book as a junior in high school I immediately fell in love with the genre (which changed my life, too), Fahrenheit 451 can't help but change you if you let it. I already knew, when I read it that first time, that books were important. But this clarified it. Books aren't just important on a personal, individual level, but on a social level, too. Without books we are far less human. I have clung to that knowledge as it is starting to seem like books are less and less relevant: Those of us who know they matter need to continue sharing that knowledge. Sharing books.
4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Does reading a book about a character who attempts suicide create readers who also commit suicide? (It is also banned because of the main character's sexual experiences, some profanity, and its not-so-subtle rejection of women's role as a mother and wife.) I would like to think not. Except, when my dad was hospitalized for depression and suicidal thoughts, one of the things his therapist told him was to avoid "dark" books. So perhaps a penchant for dark and twisty thoughts might lead one to reading dark and twisty books. Except—the dark and twisty was there in the first place.
I don't know.
Suicide is real and pervasive and horrible and I am not a psychiatrist so I cannot say for sure. But it seems that not talking about it, and not writing about it (and thus not reading about it) won't make suicide go away.
a summary and how it changed me: Esther Greenwood is a successful young adult who landed a summer internship in New York City with a popular women's magazine, but her depression turns dangerous in the weeks following her return home.
I discovered Sylvia Plath through the song "Bell Jar" by the Bangles. I'd listened to the song a few times, and then in a fortuitous (or wise, on my English teacher's part) twist, looked up "Plath, Sylvia" at the library after my English teacher recommended her to me. The card catalog and the song lyrics clicked, and I was hooked.
The moment in The Bell Jar that changed my life is when Esther is swimming in the ocean, perhaps trying to drown, but the "old brag" of her heart, "I am, I am, I am" doesn't let her. I cannot say my depression was as dark as Esther's (or as Plath's), but sometimes those words reminded me that I am, too. Right now: I am. And that helped me keep being.
5. Harry Potter by R. K. Rowling. This series was concerning to parents because they thought it celebrated the occult, magic, demonism, and witchcraft. Which puts to point one of the main questions I have for book banners: Have you ever actually read this book you're complaining about?
a summary and how it changed me: I'm not sure I need a summary of Harry Potter. But: The orphaned Harry Potter, who lives with his emotionally-abusive aunt, uncle, and cousin, until he discovers he's a wizard and can go to Hogwarts School of Magic. Friendships are formed, magic is accomplished, hijinks ensue, including the need to find and destroy the world's most evil wizard.
The excitement over Harry Potter started in about 1998, and I totally didn't even notice it. Haley was three, Jake was a baby, and junior chapter books just weren't on my radar. But then my friend had tickets to the first Harry Potter movie, so we went with her (and Jake lost his brand-new coat) and I tumbled head-over-heels. I bought the first four books (the hardback ones, with the Mary GrandPre covers) and read them to my kids.
Haley, Jake, and Nathan all loved to read when they were kids. But none of them loved the books that I loved when I was a kid, thus dashing my expectations of discussing, say, Anne of Green Gables with Haley or A Wrinkle in Time with Jake. I'm fine with this—I'm just happy they loved to read. But Harry Potter changed me because it gave me those books to share with my kids. It gave us those happy days of sitting together in the front room, immersed in Hogwartian adventures. Harry Potter brought us closer together as a family and gave us a shared language and story arc; it still makes us closer because it is still part of our shared language.
There are many other oft-banned books I love. But these five have all changed me in ways that are immeasurably valuable. They have defined me, brought me happiness, helped me to understand the world better. Saved me, in some ways. Thankfully I live in a country that values free speech, so while doubtless people will continue trying to ban or censor books, hopefully they will not ultimately be successful.