The end of September is the perfect week to celebrate the coming, chilly seasons of cozying up with a book while merrily exercising your First Amendment rights. Why? The last week of September is Banned Books Week, a national awareness campaign that celebrates the freedom to read.
Banned Books Week began in 1982 and was founded by First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug. Having been a reference librarian since 1962, the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association in 1967 and the executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation in 1969, Krug was contacted by the Association of American Publishers with the idea to bring more attention to the American public about banned books in response to a surge of censorship challenges to books that year.
Krug brought this information and idea to the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and six weeks later the first Banned Books Week was celebrated. She also fought for the protection of confidentiality of library database searches after the United States Department of Justice conducted searches under the authority of the 2001 USA Patriot Act.
The Banned Books Week campaign is nationally promoted by the American Library Association and internationally promoted by Amnesty International, which gives special focus to those in the international community who have been persecuted because of writings that they may have read, produced or circulated.
Through bannedbooksweek.org, the campaign hosts events, shares resources and provides promotional tools and merchandise. In 2011 the American Association of School Librarians widened the campaign’s cause to include bringing attention to the filtering of websites by designating the Wednesday of Banned Books Week as Banned Websites Awareness Day. This aligns with the campaign’s overall promotion of intellectual freedom in libraries, bookstores and schools.
One of the earliest recorded instances of literary censorship to occur on American soil was the burning of William Pynchon’s “The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption” which was burned by the General Court of Boston under the influence of the Puritan Church in October 1650.
In 1873, the U.S. Congress passed the Comstock Laws which were also referred to as Acts for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” and criminalized the use of the U.S. Postal Service to send any literature or items of sexual or pornographic nature, including medical journals with information on contraceptives and abortion. By the mid-20th century, most of these laws had been repealed or deemed unconstitutional.
Other early and well-known subjects of censorship include Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” which was withdrawn from sale in Boston in 1881 for its explicit language, although its first printing released in 1882 sold out in a day. Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned by librarians in Massachusetts after its first publication in 1885, and it still remains among the top 100 most challenged books for its racially insensitive content and language.
Book bans became more prevalent with the rise of Modernism which was a philosophical and art movement that diverged heavily from traditional forms and values. The early origins of modernism can be traced to romanticism’s revolt against the effects of bourgeois values and the industrial revolution, but its main period begins in the early 20th century. Controversy was stirred over works from progressive and modernist writers like John Steinbeck, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others.
Not all books that are challenged actually end up becoming banned, and although bans on books have become less prevalent today than they were previously, there are still books that find controversy and challenges in communities across the nation. For example, the “Harry Potter” series was listed by the American Library Association as the most challenged book in 2001 and 2002. Their website, ala.org, has top 10 and top 100 lists of frequently challenged books by decades and specific years.
If you’re looking to participate in Banned Books Week during quarantine, you’re in luck because the campaign has a long tradition of virtual celebrations. The Banned Books Week YouTube channel provides videos about book bans and hosts annual “Read-Outs” where participants can submit videos of themselves reading challenged and banned books. Banned authors Like Judy Blume, Stephen Chbosky and even EWU graduate and Idaho local Chris Crutcher have participated in past years. Those who would like to submit a video of their Read-Out video can do so at bannedbooksweek.org/videos.
Whether you celebrate your freedom to read this week with a controversial choice or a well-loved classic, now is a great time to dive into some literature, comics, nonfiction or whatever suits your fancy. If you’ve blown through your home library already, both Spokane County Library District and Spokane Public Library are still offering curbside pickup. Check out their websites for suggested reading lists and other resources at scld.org and spokanelibrary.org.
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