On any given list of “great books,” you’re likely to spot at least a few that were (or still are) banned. These include The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Lord of the Rings, and The Call of the Wild.
Lest you think that censored reading material is a thing of the past — the books listed above are, after all, classics — the American Library Association fields challenges to contemporary books all the time. In recent years, the Captain Underpants series has topped challenged book lists, as has the award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Kite Runner, and the ever-popular Hunger Games trilogy.
While we won’t comment on the literary merit (or lack thereof) of Captain Underpants or other challenged books, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the sheer number of classic novels that were once — and sometimes still are — considered to be taboo. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, an unintentional examination of societal prejudice and personal growth, is sometimes still banned today, yet it offers a unique statement on the importance of following one’s own conscience. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl has much to teach us about personal strength and a dark period of human history, yet it is also sometimes removed from library shelves.
The written word has the power to transform society. In 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense anonymously, providing a clear and simple argument for freedom from British rule and convincing tens of thousands of colonists of the merit of the Revolutionary cause — this despite the fact that, if caught by the British, Paine would have experienced a great deal of, well, pain. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. The book had such an impact that Abraham Lincoln is rumored to have called Stowe “the little lady who started this great war.” Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle provided the impetus for the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which is the reason that we have the FDA today.
And so, on this the final day of 2014 Banned Books Week, we’d like to take a moment to thank the many authors who have eschewed public and critical acclaim in favor of honoring the written word. You don’t have to read banned books to appreciate the truth behind the phrase: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”