Book banning is not a new phenomenon. The Catholic Church’s prohibition on books advocating heliocentrism lasted until 1758. In England, Thomas Bowdler lent his name to the practice of expurgating supposed vulgarity with the 1818 publication of The Family Shakespeare, edited by his sister.
In the US, the nineteenth century anti-vice activist Anthony Comstock enforced laws aimed at suppressing materials that were “obscene, lewd, or lascivious.” Included in that category were anatomy textbooks and materials on birth control. Among those indicted was Margaret Sanger, whose 1914 newspaper The Woman Rebel was deemed obscene.
Later attempts at book banning were directed at the likes of James Joyce’s Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In 1933, Judge John M. Woolsey overturned a federal ban of Ulysses, which had been in effect since 1922. Woolsey concluded that the book, while not to his liking, was serious art. Lawrence’s novel, banned in England, was published by an Italian publisher in 1928, and three decades later printed in the US by the Grove Press. Grove successfully defended the work in federal court in 1959, arguing that works could be both obscene and have redeeming social value. By 1964, the Supreme Court would agree in another Grove Press case involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. By the end of the 1960s, a presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, established by Lyndon Johnson, issued a controversial report concluding that “Federal, State, and Local legislation prohibiting the sale, exhibition, or distribution of sexual materials to consenting adults should be repealed.” The report was rejected by Congress.
By the end of the 1960s, a presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, established by Lyndon Johnson, issued a controversial report concluding that “Federal, State, and Local legislation prohibiting the sale, exhibition, or distribution of sexual materials to consenting adults should be repealed.” The report was rejected by Congress.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, books were increasingly being challenged in schools and libraries for social and political content. Students and parents pushed back, and in June of 1982, after a challenge by students in New York, the Supreme Court weighed in. The 5-4 decision in Island Trees School District v. Pico ruled that public schools could not remove books from school libraries “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” Among the eleven books that the school had attempted to remove were works by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Richard Wright, Alice Childress, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bernard Malamud.
That May, after the case had been argued but before the decision was handed down, banned books were showcased at the 1982 American Booksellers Association exposition in Anaheim, California. The ABA exhibit featured about five hundred supposedly dangerous books stacked inside locked metal cages. And in September of 1982, the American Library Association led the first banned book week celebration.
But challenges continued. And since 1990, the Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has kept track of challenged books, drawing on reports in the media and from librarians. Among the recent works on the ALA’s top ten lists are George by Alex Gino (2018), Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (2017), This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (2016), and Looking for Alaska by John Green (2015). Among the most challenged over the years are To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and the Captain Underpants series.
Featured Image Credit: “Old books in Shelves” by Roman Kraft. CC0 via Unsplash.