Happy Banned Book Week to one and all! This week, the American Library Association and book lovers around the country are celebrating our right to read whatever the hell we want. From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Fun Home, many books that are considered classics today weren’t always perceived that way, facing controversy for their content and consequently ending up on banned reading/teaching lists.
I had my own first-hand experience of book banning back in high school. My junior AP English class was required to read The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad. One religious parent did not approve of her daughter reading such “violent” and “sexual” content, so she decided it take it to the school board and get the book banned. The teacher halted reading discussion on the book, and all school-owned copies were confiscated from classrooms and the library.
And all I could think was, this is bullshit.
The Bookseller of Kabul, for those who haven’t read it, is a piece of nonfiction written in the aftermath of 9/11. The book details Seierstad’s stay (in disguise) with Shah Muhammad Rais and his family in Afghanistan for three months. The point of the assignment was to open up the floor for discussion on a topic different from what we’d usually study, and to take something in about a different culture than many of our own.
The National Coalition Against Censorship even wrote a letter to my school board, which you can read for yourself.
Long story short: As the struggle continues into 2016, readers everywhere are using Banned Book Week to celebrate our right to gain information by picking up once-banned books. Speakers and discussions and book ban lists are up everywhere between schools, bookstores and libraries. The New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries are also celebrating this week by hosting their own series of events you can find on their respective websites.
As an avid reader myself, I choose to honor Banned Book Week with this list of the best 10 once-contraband books I think every Brooklynite should read.
1. Looking for Alaska (2005) by John Green
Genre: Young Adult
Reasons for banning: “offensive language, sexual content” and unsuitable subject matter for age group (insinuated suicide), etc.
Like the story of a boy leaving home for an out-of-state boarding school, this is a great read for any new transplant to Brooklyn looking to seek something they couldn’t find in their hometown. Defy ennui. Go and seek your great perhaps.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee
Genre: Classic/Southern Gothic/Coming-of-Age
Reasons for banning: explicit language, racial slurs, institutionalized racism, implied sexual content, etc.
Look around at what’s going on in the country today. This book still holds an important message of what it means to love thy neighbor, because Brooklyn is crazy diverse and it’s a good idea to keep the following in mind: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch, everybody.
3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey
Reasons for banning: prostitution, murder, profanity, unsuitable subject matter for age group (high schoolers), etc.
This book offers valuable insights into various forms of mental illness, and while you may be wondering who the “crazy” woman waiting for the C train is talking to, she’s probably thinking that you’re the crazy one. Read this book and cultivate some empathy with your fellow crazies.
4. Slaughter-House Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Science Fiction/Modernism/Dark Comedy
Reasons for banning: religious undertones, sexual content, profanity, references homosexuality, etc.
Sometimes Brooklyn feels like you’re on a whole other planet, and Vonnegut has excellent tendencies to keep things very human and relatable in a science fictional setting. He’ll make you think about life, religion, and how you view and treat other human beings. Also check out his lesser known book Slapstick, a surrealism piece on loneliness that takes place in New York City.
5. The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin
Genre: Fiction/Romance Novel
Reasons for banning: sexual content, sexuality, feminism tendencies
Wikipedia deems this novel about a girl’s struggle with notions of femininity and motherhood “one of the earliest American novels that focuses on women’s issues without condescension.” Damn right. The Awakening reminds every self-respecting borough dweller that a woman should be able to do whatever she damn well pleases, going against the social norm and what’s deemed “appropriate,” even in a progressive city. Rock your mom shorts.
6. Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky
Genre: Young Adult/Epistolary
Reasons for banning: mature content, references to drugs, sexuality, suicide, offensive language, etc.
A cult-classic dealing with teenage angst, it’s an eye-opener to the realization of being an outcast and how to come out of your comfort zone. Good for any Brooklynite looking to try new things to do in their spare time, find infinity, etc.
7. Go Ask Alice (1971) by Anonymous/Beatrice Sparks
Reasons for banning: references to drug abuse, sexuality, promotes weight loss, “mature” content, etc.
This anti-drug testimonial is narrated and written by a character only known as Anonymous. I will hit home for many who struggle with addictions or bad habits, and offers an chilling (but not moralizing) look into the dangers of drug use. Serves for a good reminder to definitely stay away from K2. Also, a supreme Bechdel-blasting intimacy with a central female character.
8. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2000) by Marjane Satrapi
Genre: Graphic Novel/Autobiography
Reasons for banning: graphic language/inappropriate, violent images
At freshman orientation at Wayne State University in Detroit, each incoming student was “required” to read this book to be in the Scholar’s Program. This book narrates the life of Satrapi as she was growing up during the Iranian Revolution, and can offer a literary supplement to the cultural sensitivity programming that De Blasio’s new #IAmMuslimNYC campaign promises.
9. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian/Feminism
Reasons for banning: sexually explicit, violence, suicide, anti-Christian, etc.
In a sterile fictional world where periods are scarce, a woman’s right to bleed in the real world is a beautiful thing. Thankfully in New York we’re not longer taxed for feminine products anymore, but women’s reproductive freedoms are still every Brooklynite’s fight. The narrator, Offred, writes, “Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”
10. Thirteen Reasons Why (2011) by Jay Asher
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Reasons for banning: suicide, sexually explicit, graphic language, etc.
This YA fiction novel tells the story of a young girl who committed suicide. A classmate finds a mysterious box with her name on it on his porch, and must read about why he was one of the 13 reasons she killed herself. Real world takeaway: be nice to each other. Brooklynites usually aren’t afraid to voice their opinions, and we’re good at being the right kind of in-your-face with one another. But there’s a difference between being heard and being a dick. You never know how an interaction can affect another person.
In summary, we’re terribly lucky to live in a country where the government doesn’t get much of a say over our intake of knowledge and what we choose to read, so don’t take it for granted. Go forth! Grab a friend and go to a bookstore right now (take this quiz to find your perfect bookstore). Go to a library and get a library card, or dust off that book that’s been sitting on your shelf for months now you’ve been meaning to pick up. Don’t know what book to start with? The Brooklyn Library challenged their librarians to pick their favorite banned books and compile their own list, or you can check out ala.org for their list!
Hope has read four books in two weeks. Follow @havinghope14 for more drunken tweets of what she’s reading next.