“If it’s good it’s been banned,” said Lucas Uckman, who works at Pegasus Books, about the types of books and literary pieces people have attempted to limit access to. Every year, as a counter message to these attempts, Banned Books Week marks the final days of September as a time to celebrate every book and author whose work has been censored, and the freedom to read. This year, Banned Books Week took place from September 22 to 28, with its theme captured in the mission statement: “Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark. Keep the Light On!”
The types of pieces banned range in many ways, but often have some larger cultural effect. Allen Ginsberg became a cultural icon after City Lights of San Francisco published his great poem “Howl” in 1956. This is regarded as a highly influential literary event, setting off the Beat Generation and changing the rules of the literary landscape forever, allowing for idiosyncrasy in a culture that had until then often been ruled by conformity. This in turn partially inspired the hippie and counterculture movement. If Ginsberg’s work had never reached the public, America as we know it may not exist. However, it came close to not being published when 520 copies of “Howl” were seized by the San Francisco Police Department and the material was put on trial for “obscenity.” In the end, the prosecution pushed for “Howl” to be banned on a national level.
Just like “Howl,” the books that tend to get challenged are often the most profound or the ones that have the most potential to create change. Many of today’s classics were rejected before they became literary keystones. To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher in The Rye, The Great Gatsby, and Lord of the Flies, to name a few, first faced harsh controversy for the ideas they presented. “When you look back to the history of when things were banned,” said Uckman, “it was anything that dissented from [the norm] in any sense.” Looking at the American Library Association’s “List of Top 10 Challenged Books of 2018,” the trait each book has in common is that it somehow goes against society’s status quo.
Every single book appearing on the Library Association’s 2018 list, from The Hate U Give to Two Boys Kissing, told a story about people that have been marginalized. Sixty percent were challenged simply for including a character with a queer identity. “I think it’s important for our store to promote what we think are marginalized voices,” said Uckman.
Banning books sends the message that what is being said in the book is not okay, and that the identities and stories of the book are unworthy of societal acceptance. The Berkeley Public Library estimates that ninety percent of the books that are challenged are written for children or young adults, and are challenged by parents who do not want their children to be “exposed” to certain knowledge. “It’s always bad for children to not see themselves in books,” said Emma Coleman, a librarian at the Central Library children’s section. “That’s the painful thing, when you … hear people who are saying ‘I wish I had this book when I was growing up. It would have meant the world to me to have been able to see myself in a book’,” said Coleman.
The stories that get banned are a good indication of what stories are suppressed beyond the literary realm. As Uckman said, “Every city represents how they are, based on what they ban.” By knowing what a city censors, its political climate can be read like a billboard. “It’s not only that,” said Coleman, “it’s who is publishing, who’s marketing, who owns the networks. The book is just the tip of the iceberg.”
In bookstores across Berkeley, there are displays of various banned books. The display at Books Inc. “gets a lot of foot traffic,” according to Sam Niedzielski, who works there. “People are just really curious, especially kids, which is cool because the whole reason we do Banned Books Week is to remember that … there are still books being banned on issues that are really important. Like Berkeley is considered progressive and so it’s good to remind everyone that this stuff is still happening in libraries around the USA.”