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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

02 October 2009

Happy Banned Books Week

What's the last banned book you've read?

Because one of the pleasures of Banned Books Week (instituted by the American Library Association in 1982) is the fantastic booklists you get to contemplate -- of titles that someone somewhere sometime felt moved to hide from you -- happy reading memories and still unread wonders just waiting to jazz up a to-be-read pile that may have gotten too one-note or work-oriented.

Like the one I'm going to cut and paste below of 42 books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course's Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century -- all of which have been banned or challenged by someone somewhere:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Ulysses by James Joyce
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
1984 by George Orwell
Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Their Eyes are Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Native Son by Richard Wright
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
There's some excellent information on the ALA's website about the circumstances surrounding how and why a book gets banned or challenged. Often it's about sex, sometimes religion or politics -- these days it's often about homosexuality. But sometimes it's something else entirely, as in 1983 when four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the removal of Anne Frank's Diary because it was a "real downer." Welcome to Prozac Nation.

How many of the books on the list above have you read? Never read? Picked up and didn't finish?

When romance novelist Anna Campbell posted the list on Facebook, various Friends weighed in. I read 25 of them to the end and didn't finish 6 -- must get back especially to Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I now remember I put aside when I was first studying computer programming. And although I've read some of the Hemingway on the list, I've never seriously read the earlier, tighter Hemingway that I've always meant to. I read Rabbit Run when I was too young entirely to get it and skipped Rabbit Redux. Hmm -- wouldn't it be great to read the whole series front to back (not skipping the fantastic short story about the Thanksgiving after Rabbit's death)?

After I finally get around to Slaughterhouse-Five.


And if (like me for so many years), you've avoided In Cold Blood, I urge you to give it a try, as I did a year or two ago when prompted by curiosity after the spate of Capote movies. I'd expected voyeurism, thrill-seeking, beautiful but chilly language -- but though the language is beautiful, the surprise is the compassion. Capote's passage on the murdered teenage daughter's diary is a stunning meditation on youth and potentiality cut brutally, heartbreakingly, irrevocably short in the process of self-discovery.

My book count was good but not great -- historical romance novelist and hoyden reader Louisa Cornell has read every book on the list!

And I was fascinated to learn that not everybody loved The Catcher in the Rye, which book's opening paragraph changed my young life:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want the truth.

All that David Copperfield kind of crap. As my husband Michael put it years later, "I didn't know you were allowed to say things like that in a book." I didn't either, nor did I know it was possible to create prose that sounded so voiced -- I can hear The Catcher in the Rye in my first novel, Carrie's Story, written by Molly Weatherfield (and in the penname, which, if you want the truth, comes from Holden Caulfield's little sister Phoebe's penname, Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield.)

But we all have our own reading biographies, our personal histories and secret museums (to use the title of Walter Kendrick's book about the banned books tradition in English, beginning with the eighteenth century excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, when sexy art from classical times were exposed to the light of day, and gentlemen had to figure out how to keep this stuff away from people who weren't... gentlemen. (I posted about this last year -- my own inner secret museum always seems to go back to Enlightenment Europe).

We may even have personal aspirations in this line. Mine, I confide, is to be read on the sly by babysitters. I'm with women's fiction writer and book blogger Lisa Dale when she celebrates Banned Books Week by musing -- hilariously -- on the adventurousness and forbiddenness of reading. Not to say that anybody should ever ban any book. (Any -- got that? When Michael and I were part-owners of Modern Times Bookstore, an interview question Michael would ask job applicants was "What do you say when someone asks you to special-order The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?" And the answer? "Do you want cloth or paper?")

Luckily, no one ever did ask for that special order. But reading can be dangerous. In the sense that it makes you who you are, which isn't someone who anybody else could have made you be. In the sense that language is magical and powerful.

"Magic is real," they say in the book that's had me transfixed this week, Lev Grossman's very smart, deeply moving, and very adult fantasy novel The Magicians. Books, language, stories -- perhaps particularly when they're real enough for someone to ban -- bring us back to the real via the great circle route of the imagination.

This is a week for celebrating all that.

For bringing out our own readers' biographies (and perhaps how we became writers as well).

For making lists, counting how many you've read.

Recommending the one you like and slamming the ones you don't, and sharing it here if you've a mind to.


And -- if anybody knows, I'd love to hear it -- has a romance novel (historical or not) ever made it to a banned list?

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13 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

A very provocative post, Pam, as always. I have read 26 of the books on your list. Add to that the following banned books: ROMEO AND JULIET; ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT'S ME, MARGARET, all 7 of the HARRY POTTER BOOKS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and many, many more, including, yes, the dictionary, which has been banned in the past for -- get ready for it -- "the words it contains."

10:01 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

P.S. I don't know whether a romance novel has made it onto the list, although it wouldn't surprise me. However, the only playwright to be arrested for promoting public lewdness and whose play was closed down and subsequently banned, was Mae West, the author of a play titled SEX, which ran and was closed down, and ran and was closed down in NYC. Swathed in furs, Ms. West was taken to the women's detention center where she dined with the warden and his wife every night. On her release, she left a sum of money to start up a library for the female prisoners.

So I'm raising a glass to Mae West this week as well!

10:04 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Ooh, I love that Mae West story. Thanks so much!

10:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the wonderful post on an important topic, Pam. I've read seven books on the list, most of them in high school classes. Also Romeo & Juliet and The Wizard of Oz, from Amanda's additions. And I saw the Mae West play "Sex" at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley a couple of years ago (I actually blogged about it on my website - http://tracygrant.wordpress.com/2007/11/26/more-on-fallen-heroines-and-a-teaser-from-the-mask-of-night/)

Very fun, interesting play, and the program notes included the story Amanda recounted about the play being closed down.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've read about 30 of the books on the list. Many of Judy Blume's books including Forever have been banned, which I think is ridiculous along with some of Madeleine L'Engle's (again ridiculous). I know that Meg Cabot has been dying to have one of her books banned and I think she finally succeeded.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm thinking it's what we need, in order to get a little respect.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Very insightful and thoughtful post, Pam! Yes, I am the geek who has read every book on the list. I think I said I didn't know if it made me well-read or a real nerd. I have been addicted to the written word since I was 4 and have had the good fortune to be put in situations in which the time and books have been put into my hands with no question as to the appropriateness of the material for someone my physical age. I am so glad you read Truman Capote. In Cold Blood is one of my all-time favorite books for just the reason you gave. It is a lyrically written work. As a musician words have a rhythm to me and the truly great writers create symphonies with their prose.

Living in the Deep South, I have seen all too often how small-minded people seem determined to make decisions for the rest of us. Including members of my own family. I love my brothers dearly, but one, who is very active member of his church simply took the word of his minister that the first Harry Potter book was evil, satanic - add any ignorant adjective you like. My nephew was DYING to read them. So of course he called me. Once he explained I called my brother to lecture him on the slippery slope that comes from banning any book. He finally agreed that if I read the book and didn't find it objectionable, my nephew could read it. So, as each book came out I read it and then called to give the okay for my nephew and eventually my niece to read each one. I have made a habit of giving them books on every holiday and gift-giving occasion. My nephew is now a freshman in college and doing extremely well, especially in English comp. Seems he learned quite a bit from reading all of those evil books.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Wow. And good for you, Louisa. And your nephew. And J.K. Rowling too.

It must be a very intense sort of fear, to feel afraid of what's in a book.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Read eight -- some more than once. On our honeymoon I found Upton Sinclair's THE JUNGLE and started to read it. I was so angry/depressed by it that my brand-new husband suggested I "put the book down" as my much to frequent rants on the subject spoiled the mood of our tropical adventure. He was right. So I did.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

THE JUNGLE. Not. A. Honeymoon. Book. (Especially not on a tropical adventure -- where did you guys go, Mary?)

But your story reminds me of one of my own personal best moments -- when my nephew's then-new, then rather quiet and reserved wife greeted me with a big hug when they came over to dinner and whispered in my ear, "We took ALMOST A GENTLEMAN with us on our honeymoon."

7:18 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love the story about your nephew's wife, Pam!

I read "The Jungle," in American Studies in high school, Mary. Definitely a raw, relentlessly down book. Not good for a honeymoon mood. But it has stayed with me vividly all these years later (lots of years--I had my 25th high school reunion last night :-).

8:02 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Great, thought-provoking post, Pam! As usual.
I've read 33 of the banned book list and am still reasonably well-adjusted, undamaged psychologically, and maybe even more broad-minded than before I started reading. Which to some banned-book-list compilers should be pretty
thought-provoking.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Which to some banned-book-list compilers should be pretty thought-provoking.

Ah, if "thought" (or "broadmindedness") were the point of compiling a banned book list...

2:15 PM  

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