Because that freedom is not constitutionally protected, everyone from the federal government to local school boards gets into the banned books act from time to time. James Joyce's Ulysses was banned by U.S. Customs, which also banned Lady Chatterley's Lover, Fanny Hill, and Tropic of Cancer until such bans were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964.
When the federal government steps out of the book-banning business, local governments often step in. Among the many bannings detailed by the American Library Association are these: a Tulsa teacher was fired in 1960 for teaching The Catcher in the Rye. The subject of frequent bans and protests, that book was also challenged in Columbus, Ohio, for being "anti-white and obscene." And a school superintendent in California removed it from the district's libraries as a precaution in case the book became too polarizing. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, describing the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II, and a book that is also a frequent target of bans, was actually burned in Drake, North Dakota, in 1973.
In conjunction with Banned Books Week, co-sponsored annually by the American Library Association and other groups of authors, publishers, and booksellers, the ALA publishes a list of the most-banned books of the past year. There were more than 500 reported challenges to books in 2008, but as many as 70 to 80 percent of all attacks on books go unreported because teachers and librarians fear for their jobs.
The top 10 banned books for 2008 include many titles popular with children and young adults, including Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass (banned, along with other Pullman books in the series, for its political and religious viewpoints, and for violence); the Gossip Girl series (offensive language, explicit sexuality); Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories series (Satanism); and And Tango Makes Three, which is based on the true story of two male penguins in New York who form akouch family and raise a baby penguin (homosexuality; East Coast elitism; inappropriate for readers in temperate climates).
The ALA also reports on classics that have been banned. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was burned in East St. Louis in 1939 and banned in Kern County, California, where the action of the book takes place. Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men has frequently been banned as well (it was challenged in Greenville, South Carolina, by the great guardian of public morality, the Ku Klux Klan). Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned for racism, for bad language, for interfering with school desegregation, and for conflicting with community values.
The ALA website offers an interactive censorship map detailing all the reported book-banning incidents of the year. It's clear that banning blankets the country: not three miles from my house, Champaign's Centennial High School pulled Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner "because of parental objections." The Kite Runner was the ninth most-banned book last year, cited for offensive language, sexual explicitness, and being age-inappropriate, although the 2007 movie version is rated PG-13, suggesting that the story line is suitable for high schoolers.
Centennial High School, in Champaign, removed The Kite Runner from its shelves, though students could still see the movie
The ALA's Library Bill of Rights urges that the right to use the library should not be abridged by age, but librarians also acknowledge a parental right to guide children's reading, so long as that guidance stays in the family: "Parents - and only parents - have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children - and only their children - to library resources."
Even so, books remain controversial. In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Mr. Bookman, the library cop, shows up at Jerry Seinfeld's apartment to recover a book that's been overdue for 20 years. The book in question is Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, published in Paris and banned by U.S. Customs in 1934 (to be fair, although French culture minister Frederic Mitterand has been defending film-maker Roman Polanski, convicted of raping a thirteen-year-old child thirty years ago, Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's fictional account of an old man amorously pursuing a teenager, was widely-available in the U.S. but banned in France for many years).
Karma: Jerry finally goes to the library to pay Bookman for the long lost Tropic of Cancer, which George left in the high school locker room and which was taken by the now-homeless gym teacher, Mr. Haman, who made a hobby of torturing George and who may have lost his job for reading that "dirty book" by Henry Miller.
Grove Press published the first American edition of Tropic of Cancer in 1961, and the book's obscenity ban was finally reversed by the U. S. Supreme Court (Grove Press v. Gerstein) in 1964.
The first edition of Tropic of Cancer, published by Obelisk Press in Paris, warns, "Not to be imported into Great Britain or U.S.A."
Real libraries don't send cops to collect overdue books, even ones that have been banned, but recently Amazon, the world's largest bookseller, reached into the Kindles of customers who had purchased copies of George Orwell's 1984 and erased the book. 1984 was challenged in Florida on the grounds that Orwell was a communist and a pornographer (he was clearly neither), but Amazon wiped the book from its electronic book readers in the United States not because the text was subversive but because the bookseller discovered that it didn't have the rights to distribute the text. There are many benefits to digitizing books and to the interactivity of Web 2.0, but one downside of the internet being a two-way street is the ability of governments and private corporations not just to ban books, but to completely erase them from our computer memories without warning.
Because Australia has different copyright laws, the "bootleg" 1984 is still available on Australian Kindles
In many ways, corporations are more likely to give in to pressure groups than governments are. Consumer boycotts represent lost revenues, and if enough people object to Hamlet (violence, sexual situations, and there's a ghost); Macbeth (witchcraft, possible partial-birth abortion - Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripped - and there's another ghost); Walden (themes of civil disobedience; mental illness -- hearing a different drummer, who isn't really there; and anti-business sentiments); or even the current New York Times bestseller, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Francophilia, promotion of atherosclerosis), then it will be all too tempting for Google, Amazon, or your local internet service provider, to zap them from your laptop, iPod, or cell phone. They won't need a warrant, and they won't have to hide behind the Patriot Act. Better start reading now, before it's too late.
Maybe if enough people read, we won't have to have Banned Books Week anymore