Banned Books

by Doug Dawson

‘Ok Johnny, I know you want to bring your English grade up, but you don’t speak up in class, so it seems like you’re not participating as much as the others.”

“Mrs. Ellis, it’s just I’m… shy. I find it hard to talk in a room full of people. I pay attention, I do the reading… I’m learning… it’s just hard for me to let you know that.”

 “All right, I think I understand. Let me see… you could do book reports for extra credit. Can you think of any books you’d like to read and write a report on?”

“I’ve read some of Shakespeare’s plays and wanted to do a report on one of them, but… I ran into a problem.”

“What problem?”

“Looking it up on the Web, I found some of them have actually been banned.”

“Which plays?”

“A teacher in Georgia required students to have permission slips just to read Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear. Say, I wouldn’t have any trouble reading and reporting on them here, would I? We know this state’s conservative history… banning the teaching of evolution and all that and… writing about anything banned on religious grounds makes me nervous …”

“I don’t think there would be a problem here – why were these plays censored, for lack of a better term?”

“References to sex and violence.”

“Any of his other plays banned?”

“The Merchant of Venice, in Michigan for its portrayal of the Jewish character Shylock.”

“That’s today’s sense of political correctness,” replied Mrs. Ellis, “something that didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time. They’re judging ancient works by modern standards.”

“Since I’m not sure I can get away with writing about Shakespeare’s plays, I tried to find another classic to write about, something so mild it couldn’t possibly offend anybody, so I picked a children’s story.”

“Which one?”

“Little Red Riding Hood.”

            Mrs. Ellis looked pleased for a second, then a look of concern crossed her face. “Wait a minute…”

“It was banned in two California schools – it was an illustrated edition and it was the pictures – they showed Riding Hood taking food and wine to her mother. There were concerns about the use of alcohol in the story.”

“That’s one I didn’t know about.”

            “Good thing I’m not writing about Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species.’ That was banned in this state.”

            “That was quite a while ago. I think you can write about that now.”

“I’m afraid it still conflicts with a lot of people’s religious views.”

            “You may have a point there. This shouldn’t be so hard, finding a non-controversial book to report on… or maybe that’s what we should be reporting on, to pique people’s curiosity – at least mine, as I’m the one who will be reading the report. As we’re talking here, I’m getting an idea. Why not report on censorship in this country, on books in particular?”

“Wow, great idea, but that sounds like a term paper.”

“No, I don’t want a study or a thesis, just a short review – a few pages will suffice.”

            Johnny looked pleased. “I’ve been reading up on censorship just out of curiosity. I typed up my notes and it’s a report in all but name right now… want to see them?”

            “Sure.”

            Johnny now looked concerned. “We may touch on some sacred cows here.”

“Sacred to whom?”

“To people who have, shall we say, a strict code that doesn’t permit any deviation. You might say it’s their way or no way.”

            “I know the kind of people you mean – I’m not one of them, so shoot – I’m ready.”

Johnny handed over his preliminary report on censorship of book in the USA. It went as follows:

“Huckleberry Finn was dropped from high school reading lists in Tempe, Arizona amid law suits from parents who wanted the book removed. Other banned classics include ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ George Eliot’s ‘Silas Marner’ and Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind,’ for its depiction of certain characters in the novel. The Snopes Trilogy of William Faulkner has been singled out for special attention, for its portrayal of blacks in the Jim Crow south and especially for its language, although today it is widely accepted that Faulkner was trying to show what was wrong with racism in the old south and not trying to promote it.”

Johnny looked up at his teacher, rubbed the top of his head, looked back down at his paper and continued.

            “Even the Bible hasn’t been spared a form of reverse censorship by some who want its religious messages put forward in the schools, but they ran up against the Establishment and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. In 1966 a student in New Jersey was forbidden to read the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, due to religious considerations. The Supreme Court chose the path of discretion and declined to review this case. In 2005 another lawsuit centered around a Pennsylvania school system, which prohibited a mother from reading passages from the Bible to a pre-school class.

“Other books disapproved of include ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison, ‘Brave New World,’ by Aldous Huxley and ‘Slaughterhouse Five,’ by Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck, for racism, offensive language and violence and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger for similar reasons.

            “An entire novel by Ray Bradbury – ‘Fahrenheit 451’ – was devoted to a futurist society’s attempt to ban the reading of books by burning them and censorship as practiced today has been cited in the Harry Potter books, To Kill a Mockingbird and books by Stephen King.

“Censorship has reared its ugly head in various forms in the US and Canada in recent times: a group in Pennsylvania sings songs while they destroy books, CD’s and videos they find offensive to God, while an Alabama House Bill would have banned public school libraries from purchasing books by gay authors or with gay characters. Several states passed laws banning the teaching of evolution and the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial was the result of a challenge to such a law in Tennessee. Free-speech advocates have battled creationists over the years and the issue hasn’t gone away, as various US states have taken up one side of the other.

A few days later Johnny submitted his report to Mrs. Ellis. The next day she gave it back to an elated Johnny, surprised at the high grade she gave it. “Good job, Johnny. You said a lot in a few well-chosen words.”

“Wow, thanks Mrs. Ellis. I never expected an A+.”

“I think you can expect your English grade to go up. By the way, I showed your report to the vice-principal and suggested putting it in the school newspaper as an example of what we’re doing in the English department.

“What did he say?”

“I’m afraid the news is not good. He said you made reference to the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, which reflects badly on this state. He said he doesn’t want your paper published in any form, even in the school newspaper.”

Johnny looked shocked. “You mean I’m being…”

“Not just you, Johnny,” said Mrs. Ellis. “Me, you, the whole English Department in a way. We’re being… censored, you might say.”

“Just for mentioning what happened in the past.”

“It’s a sad truth, Johnny – old attitudes die hard.”

‘Could a law suit…?”

Mrs. Ellis thought for a moment. “Your grade’s going up. Better let it go at that.”

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