Censor This!


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Carissa Rogers.

Every Fall it rolls around like clockwork. We see the signs surfacing in our libraries, the lesson plans cropping up in our nation’s high schools and middle schools. Around book stores, the many paperbacks and hard-covers–a mute defiance set aside in window displays and atop reserved tables–whisper to us that the time has arrived.

That’s right folks, take up your copies of Howl and Huck Finn and shout them from the mountain top. Banned books week arrives once again.

For many readers, and especially those who, “frankly Scarlet, couldn’t give a damn” whether or not somebody tells them what they are allowed to read, the week in late September might come across as a bit trite. Sure, we get it, there are some conservatives out there who believe Harry Potter will turn children into Satanists, or that George Orwell’s prophetic undertakings should be squelched in the name of obscenity.

Surely these archaic viceroys have long since been trampled in the name of freedom. Surely these limiting forces are merely a history lesson to remind us of a past that once tolerated censorship.
So what’s the hullabaloo?

Brianne Sperber, Marketing Manager at the Strand, leads a pack of curious onlookers over to the store’s banned books table. For those unfamiliar with the New York institution, the Strand is a treasure chest of classics and rarities alike, where volumes are stacked to the ceiling in a mammoth collection that totals nearly “18 miles of books.”

Several of the customers are dumbfounded to find that many of the books scattered across the table are far more contemporary that what they imagined.

Junot Diaz’s Drown. Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. The Perks of Being A Wildflower by Stephen Chbosky.

“People tend to think of the classic titles that make the list,” Sperber tells BTR. “They think of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange… and obviously we feature all of those books. But what people forget is that books are still continuing to be banned, and it’s important to keep those titles in our consciousness and to remember that we need to keep fighting back.”

The banned books, believe it or not, keep steadily mounting. Sperber received a call from Publisher’s Weekly just a few weeks ago notifying her that the Miseducation of Cameron Post was being challenged by the Cape Henlopen School Board. Emily M Danforth’s YA novel, chronicling a gay teenager’s coming-of-age tale in Montana, was apparently too far-stepping for the Delaware school.

Surprisingly, the story was banned on grounds of profanity, rather than the blatant LGBT themes. Perhaps more startling is that instead of simply striking the novel from their summer reading list, Cape Henlopen decided to do away with the summer reading list all together.

The second that Sperber got off the phone with Publisher’s Weekly, she knew what had to be done.

“I grabbed all of our copies and made a spot for them on the banned books table,” she says.

It was Strand employee Aaron Jackson who first introduced the idea: create a “living” banned books table. While most book stores spend a week or two commemorating controversial titles, Jackson’s plan was to designate an area that would intentionally display these novels all year round. They feature more titles as the end of September approaches, along with a window display, but for the Strand’s sake, every week is banned books week.

The Strand took to the idea, but little did they know how well it would take off. Dozens of tables are set up throughout the book store–like modern classics, cookbooks, or summer reads–and the staff monitors how well each one does in relation to the other.

Low and behold, the banned books station gets the most business.

“It’s no surprise,” says Sperber. “Controversy sells.”

Take for example Jeannette Walls memoir The Glass Castle. Five years after its publication in 2005, The William S. Hart Union High School District in Saugus, CA, challenged the title when it was announced as required summer reading. The next three years Walls’ memoir was challenged several times and even removed from one school’s curriculum.

While the story does contain profanity, criticisms on Christianity, and instances of prostitution, it is first and foremost true.

One might expect Walls to be upset over the censoring of what is far more than just a story, but rather her life experiences and reflections. She received word of the banning while at a book reading that Sperber was attending. Sperber recounts how the writer chuckled and sighed briefly before commenting, “Great. Now my book is sure to become a best-seller.”

And it has.

Others are more skeptical about the notion of a week that seeks to celebrate banned books. Kate Garber helps run 192 Books, a cozy little literary shop nestled beneath Manhattan’s High Line Park. Contrary to the crowded, bustling atmosphere of The Strand, 192 Books offers a more personal environment of meditative stillness. Their philosophy towards banned books, too, is quite different.

“I think we need to really refine the definition of what a ‘banned’ book is,” she tells BTR.“Are we talking just high schools, titles that are banned from publication, or strictly what’s happening in America? And why do we see the same titles keep popping up? I think we need to hone in more specifically on what exactly is going on if we want to open a more meaningful dialogue.”

The problem is all of the above, but it’s also becoming more, and even expanding into e-books. Amazon was forced to promise its customers that it would no longer delete their books, after it was discovered that the company was systematically reaching into user devices and removing copies of Orwell’s 1984, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and even some of the Harry Potter installments.

The scariest part of the story isn’t even Amazon’s conduct, but rather the changing state of digital ownership in the literary world. As we continue to trade in our libraries and sense of tangibility for digital archives of 1’s and 0’s, we also sacrifice our full ownership of those books.

The large majority digital media that we buy comes attached with strings that allow companies, such as Amazon, “the right to modify, suspend, or discontinue the Service” or even “remove or disable access to Online Books at any time.” without liability. What you purchase is no longer a book, but a service, one that can be taken from you at any moment.

Should we wish to forever remember and immortalize our First Amendment rights as citizens in this country, it becomes readily apparent how important it is to celebrate banned books week. Whether it’s here in America or abroad, whether it’s a classic or contemporary, or titles that are banned from publishing or high-schools, joining together to celebrate the freedom of reading is one of the most integral passions to every creative individual and lover of literature.

While the struggle is universal, the journey is always personal. After thinking more about the topic, Garber reveals what readers visiting 192 Books might come to expect from the store next year when banned books week rolls around.

She smiles as she conjures her plan.

“We’ll pull out all of the titles that our staff were discouraged to read when we were growing up,” Garber says. “We’ll put them on a shelf along with anecdotes written by each of us explaining what it meant to discover them, against all odds, against the rules. People need something really personal to encourage them to take risks. Plus it’s extremely important, and badass, to read something you are told not to growing up.”

It’s the best kind of protest, she says.