Banned Books Week officially starts today, ending Oct. 1; it will feature a number of events in libraries nationwide that point out how wrongheaded it is to ban books. Look for the latest most-challenged books list, which in recent years has been topped by the award-wining picture book "And Tango Makes Three," based on the story of two same-sex penguins who raised an adopted chick together. Also frequently challenged are books from two supernatural series for young adults, Twilight and Harry Potter.
Attempts to keep "undesirable" books out of the hands of young readers, as silly as it seems to some, haven't stopped. This year, the Sherlock Holmes mystery "A Study In Scarlet" was removed from a Virginia reading list for its portrayal of Mormonism. In 2010, Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak," which deals with sexual abuse and rape, was targeted in Missouri for being "soft porn." And Sherman Alexie's young adult novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," has been challenged for its language, explicit sexuality and racism -- despite having won the National Book Award in 2007.
Other banned books come with literary pedigrees. James Joyce's "Ulysses," parts of which were published in the U.S. in The Little Review from 1918-1920, was banned in this country until a trial stemming from a 1933 import, in which a judge ruled it was not obscene. Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," published in France in 1934, spurred an obscenity lawsuit after it was finally published in the U.S. by Grove in 1961. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried in 1957 for publishing Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl."
As a reader, it's easy to see how our literature and libraries are made better by the inclusion of all these works. But what about "Mein Kampf"? Do we have to stand up for it during Banned Books Week? In an essay for the Times in 2008, David L. Ulin wrote:
Banned Books Week offers up the sort of toothless, feel-good spectacle that makes us less likely to consider the actual ramifications of free expression.
The basic message here is one of astonishment: Why would anyone ban books when literature is such a positive and ennobling force? Yet while I agree with that, I also believe that some books truly are dangerous, and to ignore that is simply disingenuous.
Lest this make me seem an apologist for the book banners, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I'm against restricting anything other than material that graphically portrays certain illegal acts.
Yet it's foolish, self-defeating even, to pretend that books are innocuous, that we don't need to concern ourselves with what they say. If that's the case, then it doesn't really matter if we ban them, because we have already stripped them of their power.
Books do change things: Just think of "Common Sense," which lighted the fuse of the American Revolution, or "Mein Kampf," which laid out the blueprint for Hitler's Germany.
These are very different books -- one a work of hope and human decency, the other as venal a piece of writing as I've ever read -- but what they have in common is a kind of historical imperative, the sense that, at the right place and time, a book can be a galvanizing factor, for good or ill.
"Mein Kampf" is a title you don't hear a lot during Banned Books Week; the focus is more on classics such as "Song of Solomon" or "The Catcher in the Rye" that have been challenged in libraries and schools.
That's understandable, but again, it reduces the territory of censorship and free expression to something neatly clarified, rather than the ambiguous morass it is. What happens when our ideals require us to defend a piece of writing that is reprehensible, that stands against everything we stand for?
Feel like celebrating the banned book? Playboy and PEN Center USA are holding a celebration of banned erotica Sept. 30 with writer Jerry Stahl, burlesque from La Cholita, Kitten Natividad and Penny Starr, Jr., "The Story of O," "Madame Bovary" and more are on the bill.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: J.K. Rowling, in green, with the cast of "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows - Part 2" at its world premiere in London in July. Credit: Ian Gavan/Getty Images