As some of you might already be aware, this 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 spend some time this week taking 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, on to my fourth and fifth considerations of the week so far…
Book #4: American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
If you’ve never encountered the works of Bret Easton Ellis before, then prepare yourself for a shock. The novel American Psycho was met with disgust and outrage upon publication in 1991, and was subsequently banned in many countries due to the excessive levels and graphic nature of the violence and sex portrayed throughout the novel. To this day, copies sold in Queensland, Australia are shrink-wrapped, and the text remains classified as ‘R18’ in the remainder of Australia and also in New Zealand. The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organisation of Women (NOW) even went so far as to describe the book as “a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women”.
It’s not hard to work out why. Ellis’ protagonist is methodological and coldly logical in his approach to murder and torture, and describes all of his actions – from his daily skincare routine, right down to his taste in music – in excruciating detail. This focus is unwavering throughout the most gruesome scenes in the novel, and at points, it can be very difficult to read.
So, why read it, you might ask? Well, for starters, Ellis’s text is ripe with wit and dark humour, for those who are willing to see it. Furthermore, it contains more than just a slither of truth. The scathing evisceration of the creatures that roam around Wall Street offered to the reader by Ellis here is more relevant than ever in the face of the recent world recession. The motif of the serial killer working in plain view because none of his contemporaries was prepared or able to look beyond his haircut, his clothes and his pay cheque is increasingly plausible in a world where the bad guys wear suits and silk ties, rather than sporting gangwear and guns.
This is not an easy book, but it’s certainly a good one – one worth reading, if you have the stomach for it, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Despite being banned from schools and being accused of stoking the fire that is feminist protest, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has not been out of print since it was first published back in 1985. A bestseller and a text now synonymous with the feminist struggle, this book is considered by many to be Atwood’s most powerful work.
Atwood, of course, is no stranger to protest and activism, and is not afraid to include controversial topics in her work. Oryx and Crake (and, in fact, the entire MadAddam trilogy), for instance, can be considered to be a warning that we need to start taking climate change and environmental issues seriously. In this book, though, the topic is women’s rights: the plot sees the entire female population being divided into classes based on household functions, with each class clad in a separate colour that instantly identifies the wearer’s purpose – dull green for the Marthas (houseworkers); blue for the Wives; red, blue and green stripes for the Econowives (working class); red for the Handmaids (whose function is to bear children to the head of the household); and brown for the Aunts (a thought-control force, part-governess, part-reform-school matron). It is a warning against seeing women in a reductive and misogynistic light, and a call for all those of the feminine persuasion to stand up for their rights to be equals.
Is this a glimpse of the future? Probably not. However, that’s partially because gender issues have been brought to the forefront of the collective consciousness in recent decades, and so the subjugation and mistreatment of women is no longer seen as ‘acceptable’ in most areas of the world. The fight is, of course, not over, and so Atwood’s text contionues to be relevant in today’s society. Though I must admit The Handmaid’s Tale is not my favourite of Atwood’s works, it is well-written and quite chilling in places nonetheless, and is certainly well worth a read.
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