Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #11 & #12

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BANNED

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 eleventh and twelfth and considerations of the week…


Book #11: A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

Clockwork-Orange-Amy-Harding

No doubt about it – A Clockwork Orange is a dark book, indeed. Made famous by Kubrick’s film adaptation of the same name, it tells the story of young teenager, Alex, who loves nothing more than a glass of milk-plus, the sounds of Beethoven’s symphonies, and a cheeky bit of ultra-violence when on a night out with his droogs. The novel is largely centred around the ideas of free will and nature versus nurture (or how much of our personality and choices are determined inherently rather than learned), but also wholeheartedly embraces the aestheticisation of violence – that is the depiction of graphic, over-the-top, excessive violence in a stylised, exaggerated fashion. It is for this reason that, when published in 1962, the book was widely banned in the UK and USA.

What many people don’t know about this book is that it is rumoured that Burgess was prompted to write it when trying to understand the motivations of the men who violently attacked him and his wife at their country home – an attack which is mirrored in the opening stages of the novel, wherein a couple are tricked into opening the door, beaten half to death, and the wife violently gang-raped. By telling the story from the youngster’s perspective, Burgess was effectively trying to climb into the head of the men who sought to hurt him and his wife without reason – this is, perhaps, one of the main reasons for him choosing to tell the story is such an unusual and iconic dialogue. The whole book has the greasy, easy feel of slang about it, despite the protagonist’s eloquence, because of Burgess’ introduction of an entirely new vocabulary.

Let’s get one thing straight right now – this book is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is gritty and unapologetic, and is not afraid to get it’s hands dirty to tell a good story. There are scenes in it which will never quite leave you. However, if you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s a powerful novel. The only criticism I have of it is the happy ending that Burgess decided to pin onto the end – his way of expressing his hopefulness for the future; that this ultra-violent nature is something which can be grown out of. I prefer Kubrick’s ending, wherein all hope is lost… but then, I never did like a happy ending.


Book #12:
(well, technically, it’s three books, but who’s counting?)
The Lord of The Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Thanks to Peter Jackson, you would have to travel pretty far to find someone who has never heard of The Lord of the Rings – with the films inspiring a new generation of readers, these books continue to draw in the crowds when other works of the same age have long been forgotten. It may come as somewhat of a surprise, then, that Tolkien’s classic trilogy, along with The Hobbit, has been banned in many schools and public libraries across America and England.

There are two main reason put forward for this: the first is related to the Hobbits’ smoking habits. It seems a strange criticism, but given the likeness between children and Hobbits, organisations such as the NHS have stated that allowing children to watch or read such material could be detrimental to their health. Now, I have to admit to being highly cynical regarding this ‘monkey see, monkey do’ philosophy that is used to justify criticisms of everything from punk music to violent video games, but for me, this isn’t really a justification to ban such a wonderful set of books. I mean, I read them, but I didn’t immediately set off for the nearest volcano, looking for some jewellery to destroy, now did I?

The other main criticism of the books relates to them being deemed ‘irreligious’, despite the fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and that in the Lord of the Rings, he felt he had consciously created a “fundamentally religious and Christian work.”  It is true that the novel contains quite noticeable Christian themes and subtexts, but this apparently has been lost on many, including the Christian schools that have fought so hard to ban these books.

If you’ve never gotten around to reading them, then I warn you, they can feel pretty long when you’re reading them. You will never read about so much damn walking in your entire life. Even the trees walk! However, that said, the characters will charm you, the languages and landscapes will amaze you, and you’ll find yourself sitting up for hours at night, just to stay with the characters a little longer. After all, no one wants to leave a friend in need, and that’s what Frodo and the gang will become – old, dear friends, with whom you once shared a great adventure. Don’t deny yourself the pleasure…

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned


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Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #8, #9 & #10 (Young Readers’ Edition)

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BANNED

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”.

All of the banned books I have considered so far have really been aimed at an adult-only audience, so I thought I would dedicate this post to looking at content for all the younger readers out there. I know what you’re thinking – who would ban a kid’s book?! The sad truth is that numerous children’s titles feature on the Banned Books list, though the justification for this in many cases is poor.

This is actually something I feel quite strongly about. As a child, I was an avid reader, and was always looking outside my comfort zone for new material – aged 11, I fought (with the assistance of my mother) for the right to own an adult library card, and thus to read whatever I liked, instead of being limited by what the school thought was ‘age appropriate’. I found the idea that books were ‘unsuitable’ for my young, malleable mind illogical and, frankly, quite insulting!

I think adolescence is the perfect time for exploration and new discoveries, as it offers youngsters the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives… that doesn’t mean that they’re going to freak out if they read something challenging, or difficult, or sad. I believe that by limiting the reading material, you are effectively limiting the child.

OK, OK, rant over… I’ll pop my soapbox away! Let’s move on to my eighth, ninth and tenth considerations of the week so far…


Book #8: The Lorax, by Dr Seuss

The-Lorax-book-cover


The Lorax
is a whimsical little story about a woodland creature, named the Lorax, who lives among the trees. The Once-ler, another little creature in the forest, cuts down trees and uses them for multiple uses. The Lorax quickly realises that the Once-ler is killing the forest, and so persuades him to stop cutting down trees. The End. Sounds like a cutesy, sweet little story with a happy ending, right? So, why oh why would anyone want to ban it?

Well, California didn’t agree. As home of the one of the largest logging industries in the world, certain Californians did not take kindly to The Lorax portraying the foresting industry in an arguably negative way. They felt that this book could potentially persuade children that the logging industry was a bad thing. In the face of increasing worries regarding climate change and the future of our great planet, I would argue that perhaps the children should see logging as a bad thing. After all, until you see a problem, you’re not likely to start thinking about a solution, are you? The sooner we realise that the rate that we are cutting down trees is not sustainable – I know that more trees are planted to compensate for those cut down, but these take too long to grow to full size for the damage done to truly be offset – the sooner we are likely to think of another way of doing things; a better way. If the children are our future, then shouldn’t we let the harsh reality that Earth’s days are numbered start to sink in now?

If you’re not familiar with Dr Seuss, they’re wonderful for younger children. I still keep a book of tales on my shelf, and look back on them with love.


Book #9
(although, technically, this is a series encompassing 7 books…
but let’s not get fussy!):
The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling

harry-potter-cover

Yes, I’m serious – Harry Potter, the highest selling children’s books series of all time, was banned throughout America. Why? Well, amongst other reasons, a number of religious groups claimed that the fantasy series about young wizards promoted occultism and paganism, thereby undermining Christian values.

For me, this makes no sense at all. Yes, it’s a fantasy book, and so it contains wizards, dragons, and magic. It also contains one of the strongest examples in recent times of a story where love conquers evil, friendship endures through tragedy, and the good guy wins in the end. We haven’t had a story of such archetypal strength, arguably, since Star Wars! There is a very good reason why adults love these books just as much as the children do.

In literary circles, Rowling is scorned – something which, I’m now ashamed to admit, kept me from reading these books initially (thinking that they were “just for kids”) – and looked down on for her frequent mentioning of candles, stone walls, and stairs, as if somehow this is not ‘creative’ enough. Well – Hogwarts is a castle, what did you expect? Is the language of magic not intriguing (the spells and incantations, the ingredients, the curses, the fairy tales)? Are you not fascinated by the world that she has created; one that could exist beneath the very noses of Muggles like us? I challenge anyone to read these books and not have their inner child cry out to visit Diagon Alley, eat a Chocolate Frog, or ride on a Nimbus 2000.

I actually think (now that I’ve put my intellectual snobbery aside) that the books are actually rather well-written – the storyline is ripe with twists and turns that constantly keep you guessing, you fall in love with the characters right from the start, and there’s not a single loose end left over when you reach the final page. Not many authors can claim such workmanship. The idea that anyone would want to ban these books makes me sad.

If you’ve never read it – whether you’re 4, 14, or 40 – I would thoroughly recommend that you give it a chance. That’s all I ask. You won’t regret it (although, you might need a box of tissues handy, just in case).


Book #10: Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne

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Winnie the Pooh is another childhood favourite: I look back on Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo as old playmates. I can’t quite imagine my childhood without them. However, this classic has been banned in a variety of countries at different points throughout history, including Russia, China, Turkey, and even England and the United States.

So, why would anyone want to ban such a seemingly harmless and charming story about a group of talking animals? Well, in some cases, the very fact that they were talking animals was grounds for an issue – creating such a thing was considered an ‘insult to God’. Piglet came under fire from certain Muslim groups, who claimed that the character was offensive to them (as Piglet is, of course, a pig – an animal considered unclean by the Muslim faith). In the case of the banning in Russia, it occurred because the book had ‘alleged Nazi ties’ (in truth, the ban was based on a single person who was found to own a picture of a swastika-adorned Pooh… apparently, this one case was evidence enough for Russia that Winnie the Pooh was pro-Nazi, and therefore anti-Russia).

In short, all of the bans are pretty absurd. This book teaches the importance of kindness to others, tolerance of those who are different to you, and sticking together through tough times. In my eyes, that’s exactly what children should be being taught. If you’re unfamiliar with Pooh and the gang, I would suggest getting acquainted, especially if you have little ones around – they’ll love both the drawings and the stories!

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned


Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #6 & #7

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BANNED

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 sixth and seventh considerations of the week so far…


Book #6: Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

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Chances are, you’re already familiar with this particular book – if not, then you’re in for a treat. Published in 1963 (the year after the Cuban missile crisis had brought humanity closer to annihilation than ever before), Vonnegut’s text is a darkly comic exploration of humankind’s ‘condition’, in an age when the world had quite literally gone MAD. The reasons for its censorship in certain Ohio schools in 1972 remain unclear to this day – some believe that its clear anti-war stance was a contributing factor, whereas others believe it was simple blind ignorance and that, in fact, those banning the book hadn’t even bothered to read it (same old story, eh?).

So, why read it? Apart from the fact that it is a literary classic, it also manages to strike the perfect balance between the comic and the bleak that defines an age overshadowed by nuclear anxiety. The phoney religion that Vonnegut cooks up (Bokononism, and the corresponding Books of Bokonon) show how keen human beings are to give over themselves to ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’, even when they are fully aware that such forces are a figment of their imagination. Furthermore, the book makes an increasingly relevant point regarding mankind’s responsibilities in the face of a God that either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care – that no one is coming to save us, and if someone presses the big red button, BOOM! That’s the end of everything. In Cat’s Cradle, the world ends in ice instead of fire, but this too can be understood as a metaphor for nuclear winter – the consequence of setting off nuclear bombs.

Vonnegut also makes some rather interesting points about the nature of scientific exploration – that, often, it is devoid of morality. The deadly substance in this novel, ice-nine, was created to solve a relatively mundane military problem (i.e. how to solidify mud so that troops can easily pass over it, instead of getting bogged down), and the other uses for it were all-but-ignored in the quest for knowledge – the fact that the substance, if misused, would contaminate the world’s water supply is considered irrelevant to the puzzle at hand. That ‘knowledge’ brings about the end of the world… so, as you can see, the metaphors for nuclear war are multitudinous here.

The book does have its critics:  some have described Vonnegut’s characters as no more than caricatures, and think his disparaging portrayal of a greedy, selfish, thoughtless human race is too harsh and polarised to be fully believable. For instance, his Dr Hoenikker – the archetypal nuclear scientist – is devoid of any conscience whatsoever, even when faced with the consequences of his creation. His three offspring – Frank, Angela and Newt – are also used to demonstrate just how easily an individual’s morality can fail. All three characters barter away their portion of ice-nine for a governmental position, attractive husband and a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget respectively, then reassure themselves that the decision was a good one, because they themselves benefitted from the transaction. They, too, fail to take responsibility for placing the ice-nine in the hands of those who will bring about the end of all things.

However, I think Vonnegut manages to capture the absurdity of the situation quite well – that these people are, effectively, squabbling over the right to own the planet’s doom… they will kill, lie, cheat and steal for it, because it represents power and, really, what does humankind desire more than life? Power. And the squabble for this power, dear friends, may one day be what kills us all off. For this reason, if for no other, the novel remains relevant as ever, in my opinion.


Book #7: 1984, by George Orwell

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What can I say that hasn’t been said already? If you’ve never read Orwell’s 1984 before – READ IT! It is quite simply one of the greatest, well-crafted, most devastating books you will ever read in your lifetime. It takes a long, hard look at some of the most important issues of our time: surveillance by the state, class divides, linguistic limitations, power/control, domination/submission, and war. As time passes, the novel seems to get closer and closer to the truth – which, actually, is the most terrifying thing about it.

For instance, Orwell adeptly demonstrates how language is used by those in authority to control its users, and just how easily we surrender that control. Those in power in Orwell’s novel have complete control over all of the information the population is given. This is a pertinent point, given our own reliance on the media for information in reality, and the increasingly digital nature of our communications and records of history. In 1984, Big Brother exploits the temporary nature of the Internet by effectively re-writing Oceania’s history again and again in order to fabricate an eternal war. So, when going into war with Eurasia, history is re-written to declare that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

The public are encouraged to hate their enemy by watching visual propaganda at scheduled times each day. Any deviants from the political and behavioural norms approved by the Ministry are rooted out by the ‘Thought Police’ – with children being some of its most fervent soldier – and taken to Room 101. There, they are broken; they will abandon their own logic and reason; give up on love, hope, and defiance; believe that two plus two does not make four.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is now the language used by those in the novel has begun to shrink, into something known as ‘Newspeak’. Unnecessary and undesirable words are eliminated from the language and, by proxy, are also eliminated from the collective consciousness (a fascinating theory – see Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis of linguistic relativity and determinism for more information about this idea). For example, the word ‘free’ is stripped of its political connotations in a bid to eliminate freedom itself. So, in ‘Newspeak’ the speaker is unable to express the concept of freedom of speech; political freedom; the freedom to disagree. It merely serves to describe the absence of something (as in ‘the garden is free of weeds’), which is ironic when you consider the absence of the freedom of the speakers of ‘Newspeak’.perceive reality differently.

This is, quite simply, one of the best books ever written. Everyone should read it at least once. Be prepared, though – it does not have a happy ending.

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned


Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #3

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BANNED

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 third consideration of the week so far…


Book #3: Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

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The Catcher in the Rye was controversial when it was originally published in 1951. Salinger’s intended audience was adults but, interestingly, it has since become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst and alienation. This has happened despite – or, perhaps, as a direct result of – the vehement censorship of the book in US schools in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The challenges generally begin with Holden’s frequent use of vulgar language, with other reasons including sexual references, blasphemy, undermining of family values and moral codes, Holden’s being a poor role model, encouragement of rebellion, and promotion of drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity. Often, the challengers have been unfamiliar with the plot itself (as is all-too-often the case when it comes to those wanting books to be banned!).

It’s not really all that surprising, though, that Americans are worried about the book’s potential influence – one of the most famous killers in history, Mark David Chapman (who was responsible for the assassination of John Lennon), famously admired the character so much that he wanted to change his name to Holden Caulfield, and wanted the book to be considered as his statement in court. Chapman is not the only criminal to have been linked with this text – several others, including John Hinckley Jnr. and Robert John Bardo, were found to be in possession of the novel, which has earned Salinger’s work an incredible yet unenviable reputation.

So, will reading it turn you into a psychopathic murderer? No, of course it won’t. What it will do is remind you of all the pain and confusion of adolescence – in that regard, the book is like a smack in the face… and yet, there is beauty to behold here. The language is conversational and at the same time manages to be poetic; the dialogue drips with the unfocused rage and sarcasm of youth. Whilst readers may find it difficult to like him all that much, their heart will bleed for him all the same -we all, to some extent, know what it is like to be Holden, because there are some things you cannot forget.

If you’ve never read it, you should give it a try – if for no other reason than to tick it off the list. Salinger is a master, and the book won’t leave you disappointed!


(Image: Amazon)

Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned