The reality of banned books in the US

At least some of my public school education was in a fairly liberal area. San Francisco it wasn’t, but it also wasn’t a small town in Georgia either. Anyway, there was a BIG thing about letting kids know about the “banned books” that mean anti-freedom bullies didn’t want you to read. Certainly, they knew, at least on some level, that telling kids about things that kids supposedly shouldn’t do is going to inspire the rebel in some of them and that a few of the kids are actually going to get a copy of that book and read it, which was part of the intent all along, to get kids to read more.

Anyway, what is the reality of banned books in the US? How frequently do books actually and literally get banned from public libraries, public schools, or even from private bookstores? Was book censorship ever as serious as some might have implied? Are there still battles raging across the country over whether North Haverbrook Central City Library is allowed to have “Lolita” on the shelf or whether Southtown Elementary School must rip out certain pages in “Your body and you”?

In America, “Banned” in this context always means “Banned and Challenged”, which means “Books some people have gotten worked up over”.

As you might imagine, that’s a shit-ton of books, none of which have actually been “Banned” in any reasonable sense of the word. For example, all of the Harry Potter novels would make this list, but just try to tell me they’re actually banned here. Just try. At most, some of those books might have been pulled from a library, most likely an elementary school library, for a short length of time.

Yes, it’s dishonest. Yes, it’s a pious lie. No, we won’t be able to get the people who are most involved with it to admit the dishonesty.

And I seem to recall that they provided a nice little list of these “banned” books, complete with title and author’s name for each book. It was blatant enticement.

We don’t see books actually getting banned in the US, in the sense of there being consequences for owning a copy. What we do see is books getting pulled from libraries.

Here’s the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics.

Read through the list and you’ll see that some books are still being pulled from school libraries and occasionally a public library.

Regarding bookstores being closed down for selling a certain book, that’s pretty much ended, except for pornography cases.

Yes. If you want to define banning as “not just not declining to buy a book, but actually removing it from the shelves of a tax-supported library after it’s already been put out,” then it’s still happening. If you want to define it as “the gummint has made it impossible to get a copy of the book,” then no, that’s pretty much died out in the last half-century or so.

Generally, “banned” means the righteous church group of some sort persuades the school board of Podunk to pull a book out of the school libraries; or, they manage to convince city council to do so for the local public library. Also, often some national group that’s more noise than substance announces they will lobby various locales to pull the book.

it’s likely not so much to get you to read them (except in some people’s mind) but that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. These groups also frequently announce they will boycott this show or that network because of what body parts they are showing this month. It’s self-promotion.

Harry Potter, for example, promotes witchcraft and black magic. This is obviously a book that no true Christian child should be reading because it will pervert their mind and make them think black magic is Ok. Don’t even get these groups started about “Jane Has Two Mommies”. Left wing groups don’t want to be left out of the action, witness the banning attemts over Huckleberry Finn and every so often, Merchant of Venice.

Actual true banning of merely printed material across the USA has not really happened since th 1950’s, IIRC. Really, what happens is certain jurisdictions deem materal like Tropic of Cancer to be pornography and prosecute anyone who sells it. Ths may happen erratically - some areas don’t bother, others prosecute the least little bit of skin. Lolita I assume falls into this category (welcome back to the 1950’s) since it apparently deals with underage sex; a little hypocritical maybe, since “Summer of 42”, “Blue Lagoon”, and many other mainstream books and movies dealt with the same subject. That’s the beauty of community standards - everyone’s got one.

List of books banned somewhere, sometime, by someone.

Hit Man is the most recent thing that comes to mind. It wasn’t banned, but the publishers could be held held liable for crimes related to the book and couldn’t use the first amendment as a defense.

Huckleberry Finn was banned in Metro Nashville Public Schools while I was a teacher 1969-1989). Nashville is a liberal city in its voting record, at least. Many people of color and their supporters did not want teachers allowed to teach that book in the classroom. That was easier to understand in the late Sixties and early Seventies when integration and busing were sensitive issues. Now I think that the offensive word which kept it banned can be understood a little easier in light of the dialect spoken at the time of the setting of the book. That seemed to be irrelevant when the book was banned.

I don’t think there are any “banned” books in America, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” in the elementary school library.

If anyone knows of a “banned” book, I would like to hear about it.

Of course, people certainly object to books from “Huckleberry Finn” to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but objection doesn’t mean banning in the sense that the book can’t be published.

Aside from child porn or a book devoted solely to harassing someone, I don’t know of any books that are illegal.

Even with that, I don’t know where the line is. The hitman book isn’t illegal (I don’t think). And posting the personal info of abortion providers (when the unspoken goal is intimidation and harassment) isn’t illegal.

Yeah, certain civil suits can stop publication of books from time to time, but usually they ultimately get published in any case. Obviously stuff can be pulled from government libraries and some things can be considered pornography.

As has been said, there basically isn’t any sort of banning of publication of books by the government. Probably the last time we came close to that sort of activity was in the Pentagon Papers case, and the SCOTUS basically said the government couldn’t do it.

There were also two cases involving nuclear weapons that are of interest (again with periodicals and not regular books), in 1950 Scientific American was going to publish an article basically explaining how thermonuclear fusion worked. Not at all any technical information about how it might be harnessed by man (in a weapon or reactor), but basically how it worked in the Sun and the general concept of it. Believe it or not, the Atomic Energy Commission ordered publication stopped, copies of the magazine already printed were destroyed, and the AEC approved a second draft of the article with certain passages changed,.

Only 29 years later, The Progressive basically wanted to publish the specifics of the Teller-Ulam design for Hydrogen Bombs (far more serious a subject matter than physics lesson on nuclear fusion the Scientific American was publishing.) The government got an initial injunction, but during the case another magazine just went ahead and released the information to the public so it became moot. Additionally, what I’ve always heard is the government became concerned it would lose in court and legislation they wanted to keep on the books for other purposes might be struck down, so they ended the case against The Progressive and it published its original article.

This sort of shows how far we came in a relatively short period of time on matters involving the banning of publishing certain printed words.

I think being held criminally liable for things your readers do is about as close as you can come to banning a book without banning a book. Which is probably about as close as you could come in America.

My apologies, but “criminal liability” is an overstatement.

Currently I can’t think of any, but historically books have been banned in the sense of some combination of 1) can’t be published in the US 2) can’t be imported into the US or 3) the sale of the book is illegal in a certain county, city, etc. and not simply removed from library bookshelves.


Andersonville (1955)
by MacKinlay Kantor
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1956, this story of a Confederate prison camp during the Civil War, was viciously attacked throughout the U.S. It was banned in Amarillo, TX.

Catch 22
by Joseph Heller
This book was banned and/or challenged more than once. It was banned in Srongsville, Ohio in 1972 and that decision was overturned in 1976. It was also challenged in Dallas, Texas (1974) and again in Snoqualmie, Washington (1979).

The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (1974)
by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks
The CIA obtained a court injunction against this book’s publication stating the author, a former CIA employee, violated his contract which states that he cannot write about the CIA without the agency’s approval. First amendment activists opposed this ruling, “raising the question of whether a citizen can sign away his First Amendment rights.” After prolonged litigation, the CIA succeeded in having 168 passages deleted.

Deadly Deceits (My 25 Years in the CIA) (1983)
by Ralph McGheehee
The CIA delayed the publication of this book for three years, objecting to 397 passages, even though much of what the author wrote about was already public knowledge.

by Giovanni Boccacio (1313-1375)
In Cincinnati, an “expurgated” version of Boccacio’s Decamerone is confiscated in 1922. In 1926, there is an import ban of the book by the Treasury Department. In 1927, U.S. Customs removes parts of text from the “Ashendene edition” and ships the mutilated copy back to me British publisher in London. In 1932, import ban lifted in Minnesota. In 1934, the New England Watch and Ward Society still bans the book. In 1954, it is still on the black lis tof the “National Organization of Decent Literature.”

Freedom and Order
by Henry Steele Commager
The U.S. Information Agency had this book banned from its overseas libraries because of its condemnation of American policies in Vietnam.

Grapes of Wrath (1939)
by John Steinbeck
Several months after the book’s publication, a St. Louis, MO library ordered 3 copies to be burned for the vulgar words used by its characters. It was also banned in Kansas City and in Oklahoma.

The Joy of Sex (1972), More Joy of Sex (1975)
by Alex Comfort
Lexington police in 1978 confiscated these sex instruction books in accordance with a new county ordinance prohibiting the display of sexually-oriented publications in places frequented by minors.

Lolita (1955)
by Vladimir Nabokov
Although it was published in Paris, it was soon (1956) to be banned there for being obscene. An Argentinian court banned the book in 1959 and again in 1962 ruling that the book “reflected moral disintegration and reviled humanity.” In 1960, the New Zealand Supreme Court also banned the book. It was later freely published in France, England, and the U.S.

by Aristophanes
U.S. import ban on Lysistrata was lifted in 1930.This Greek tragedy was written somewhere around 400 B.C.

Nothing New on the Western Front
by Erich Maria Remarque
Banned in Chicago and Boston, in Austria, and Czechoslovakia in 1929; in Germany in 1930; and in Italy in 1933. There was a public burning in Germany in 1933.

Pentagon Papers (1971)
Commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, this 3,000 page history of U.S. involvement in Indochina, was banned from publication by court order. The NY Times was printing portions of it when the order came down. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision and Bantam proceeded to publish a paperback edition.

Worlds In Collison
by Immanuel Velikovsky
In the 1950s, the scientific community tried to ban this controversial version of the origins of our solar system because it didn’t comport with the “official” version of events. The publisher, MacMillan, was forced to give up publication of the book even though it was on the New York Bestsellers list at the time. If your are interested in this Velikovsky’s Worlds In Collision and The Saturn Myth, see David Talbot’s video documentary, Remembering the End of the World.

From the cite provided by kunilou

Ulysses, by James Joyce

Burned in the U.S. (1918), Ireland (1922), Canada (1922), England (1923) and banned in England (1929).

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

Banned in Ireland (1953); Syracuse, IN (1974); Oil City, PA (I977); Grand Blanc, MI (1979); Continental, OH (1980) and other communities.

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Banned in Boston, MA (1930), Ireland (1953), Riverside, CA (1960), San Jose, CA (1960). Burned in Nazi bonfires in Germany (1933).

A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway

The June 1929 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, which ran Hemingway’s novel, was banned in Boston, MA (1929). Banned in Italy (1929) because of its painfully accurate account of the Italian retreat from Caporetto, Italy. Burned by the Nazis in Germany (1933). Banned in Ireland (1939).

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

Declared non-mailable by the U.S. Post Office (1940).

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

Banned by U.S. Customs (1929).

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

In 1973 a bookseller in Orem, UT was arrested for selling the novel. Charges were later dropped, but the book seller was forced to close the store and relocate to another city.

Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs

Found obscene in Boston, MA Superior Court (1965). The finding was reversed by the State Supreme Court the following year.

Women in Love, by DH Lawrence

Seized by John Summers of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and declared obscene (1922).

Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller

Banned from U.S. Customs (1934). The U.S. Supreme Court found the novel not obscene (1964).

Not banned in the US but I found it funny who banned it and why:
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
Burned in the Nazi bonfires because of Sinclair’s socialist views (1933). Banned in East Germany (1956) as inimical to communism.

There was a time when being able to put “Banned in Boston” on the cover could help sell extra copies everywhere else. But I think that sort of thing died out by the 70s.

Maybe on a large-scale basis, but it might have helped a little here and there. For example, I used to help in my high school’s library, and I’d open up the boxes of new books as they came in. The librarian told me that he deliberately chose books that he’d read had been banned or challenged in other cities. The only title I remember now is Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. FWIW, this was in what I would call a fairly liberal town. (But although the school had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, guess which issue was never allowed to circulate.)

A few years later, I was living in a different town, maybe slightly more conservative. One day on the new books shelf of the local public library were two dozen hardcover copies of The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie. Now, this was during the height of the controversy over the fatwa against the author, so I could certainly understand them purchasing multiple copies. However, this was a small library, which had very lengthy waiting lists for books by people like Danielle Steele. Little old ladies would come in and ask at the desk how much they’d moved up on the list. The staff never bought more than one copy of that type of book, ever. Of course, that’s the librarian’s right, but I used to feel sorry for the readers who had to wait that long for those books. I’d go to that library once a week. I counted the Satanic Verses copies, and only one was ever taken out while they were on the new books shelf.