As some of you might already be aware, next week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.
To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.
So, let’s kick it off with my first two books for consideration…
Book #1: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World, was first published in 1932. Since then, it has become one of the most frequently censored books in literary history. Even as recently as 2010, it remains one of the ten most frequently challenged books, according to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, due to its themes of sexuality, drugs, racism, anti-religious views, and suicide. Censors have long sought to prevent students from reading the book in educational institutions, but that hasn’t prevented it from becoming a well-deserved classic.
So, what makes Brave New World so special? Well, for starters, it is one of the wittiest, most eloquent works of social satire ever written. Huxley creates a forceful blend of bizarre comedy, futuristic foresight, and philosophical dialogue which appeals to more than just your average science fiction readers. There is truth here for everybody. This book is a bitter but accurate commentary on the sickness present in the human species – this drive towards insatiable, shameless consumerism which, day by day, becomes an ever more accurate description of modern society.
Some say the world will end in Orwellian fashion – with Big Brother watching, and the common man driven into poverty and solitude, and no one knowing what the truth is anymore (as is portrayed in the novel 1984 – more on that book later!). Huxley’s alternative vision sees the world instead as the willing victims of a million different pleasurable vices, laughing ourselves to death, being more than happy to buy whatever truth is being sold to us. Both visions are equally horrifying, and yet exact opposites in many ways. It is rather interesting to note that Huxley was tutor and mentor to one Eric Arthur Blair, who later would come to write under the pen name George Orwell… (Man, would I have loved to have been in that classroom!!)
Whichever camp you choose to get behind, whether you’re an Orwellian or a Huxleyite, I thoroughly recommend picking up Huxley’s novel if you’ve never come across it before, or revisiting it if it is an old favourite.
Book #2: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
First published in France by a pornographic press, this 1955 novel explores the mind of a self-loathing and highly intelligent paedophile who narrates his life and obsessive lust for “nymphets” like 12-year-old Dolores Haze. French officials banned it for being obscene, as did officials in England, New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina. Vladimir Nabokov actually nearly burned the manuscript in disgust of its content after writing it, and fought with his publishers over whether or not the image of a young girl should be included on the cover.
Love it or hate it, you have to admit that it is an intensely brave book which dares to go into territory so taboo that few authors, before or since, have dared to tread. What is often under-appreciated about this novel is the sheer beauty of the language Nabokov uses: there are passages in this text which are achingly beautiful; pure poetry. Sadly, it rarely features on the reading lists of academic institutions due to the continued controversy teaching it would create. However, it remains a classic, and for anyone who can put their feelings aside about such a delicate topic, it’s a compelling read.
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