Restricted Reading: Banned Books Yesterday and Today at MC

Imagine an America without “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “The Scarlett Letter” or “The Great Gatsby.” There would be no Huck, no Holden Caulfield, no Hester Prynne and no Jay Gatsby to enlighten today’s high-schoolers on our nation’s history and culture.

That is what the world would be like if history’s banned books remained taboo across the nation.

The week of Sept. 21 through 27, or “Banned Books Week,” celebrated a right that many college students take for granted: the right to read whatever they choose from the “Captain Underpants” series by Dav Pikley to classics by authors like John Steinbeck, Herman Melville or Tennessee Williams. What many do not know is that hundreds of the books that are part of the American canon today were once seen as too obscene for readers throughout history.

One of the displays in the O'Malley Library for Banned Books Week. Photo by James O'Connor
One of the displays in the O’Malley Library for Banned Books Week. Photo by James O’Connor

In honor of Banned Books Week, O’Malley Library displayed a variety of banned novels from years past all the way up to the present day. Still, Banned Books Week is not just about the caution tape lying across the featured books. Rather, it focuses on a major issue that has still not been resolved in many other countries today.

“Banned books represent an ever-shifting cultural dynamic within the United States,” English major Katy Tkach said when she saw the display in the library. “They embody both a temptation and an absurdity. I accept the challenge to read banned books. I think everyone should.”

Banned Books Week was a movement started in 1982 by the American Library Association, and for 32 years the movement has spread awareness of the right of Americans to read anything they wish to read, and how that right has been affected over the years. Most books featured on the American Library Association’s list were banned many years ago, but the idea of censorship still lingers in our society today.

The celebrated week highlights the difference between censorship of a book versus the right to challenge a book, mostly in the academic setting. Not only do Americans have a right to read whatever they wish, but they also have a right to critique the choices that are being made surrounding their children and their education. This right to contest information that one has been given by an authority is also one that many citizens of other countries lack.

The American Library Association released a list of books from 2013 that were the most challenged by parents and teachers, and interestingly, many of these titles are quite popular.

Among those appearing on the list include Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, all of which have been made into major motion pictures.

Many of the aforementioned titles can be found at O’Malley Library today, but in the past Manhattan College, as a Catholic institution, played a role in recommending that certain books should not be read until about 1966, only 20 years before Banned Books Week began.

At this time the Second Vatican Council did away with what is known as the “Index of Prohibited Books, Index Librorum Prohibitorum…a list of books considered harmful to Catholics and their beliefs,” according to MC archivist Amy Surak, who cited an article with detailed information on the Index.

“The Index was alive and well and enforced-permission from the bishop was needed in order to read books on the list of forbidden titles which included the works of Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche,” she said.

These texts are all studied in classes of all genres at MC today.

“This specification was part of church law and as such, the college obeyed it,” Surak added. “Proscribed books were kept under lock and key and permissions to read, study or retain titles on the Index required considerable effort. This was just the way it was.”

“In terms of controversy, arguably, academic freedom was genuinely limited under the church’s authority as it related to the Catholic Church’s legislation of the prohibition of certain classes of books,” Surak said, and policies like this one are called to mind when taking a look at the deeper meaning of what Banned Books Week celebrates every year.

“As someone who is going to be an English teacher, clearly I see some significance behind the banning, unbanning, and the content of a book that I think necessitates a conversation that we take for granted that we can read whatever we want but that hasn’t always been true, and that there are times and places when that is considered a privilege,” secondary education student Lindsey Pamlayne said.

Banned Books Week is not just about a few books on display by the stapler, it brings into perspective the changing ideals of society as time passes in regards to what people can or cannot read and it defends the right of people to read whatever they want to read, whenever they want to read it. So next time you pass by those books on your way to print out your research paper, remember that at one point in time, you might not have been allowed to read them.