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Banned Books Remind Us Of The Power Of The Written Word

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank regularly makes banned book lists, but not because it details the terror of hiding from Nazi occupiers. (Getty Images)

Here's an idea for weekend fun: Pick up a banned book.

Look for "the good parts" — the sections of Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, Catch-22, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lolita, the Harry Potter series, Animal Farm, A Farewell to Arms or In the Night Kitchen that have scenes and language that once made people gasp, blush or shudder. The parts that made them say, "We can't let people read this!"

Re-read those sections now. See if they still have the power to make you gasp.

This is the 30th year that the American Library Association has saluted Banned and Challenged Books, which they describe as "an annual event celebrating the freedom to read."

Most titles on any list of great books have been challenged or banned by some kind of authority; a lot of them still are.

There are still calls for Huck Finn to be removed from classrooms and libraries, because Mark Twain wrote in a vernacular that included racial language of the kind people used before the U.S. Civil War (and, to be sure, for a long time thereafter).

Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl is still sometimes taken off shelves or reading lists. Not because students might get nightmares to read how the Frank family had to hide in an attic until they were dragged into Nazi death camps, but because at one, brief point, 14-year-old Anne describes her maturing anatomy.

Not every book someone wants to ban is as distinguished as those, of course. But look around the world, or through history, and you might see what happens in the societies that ban ideas, images or beliefs: They wind up as intolerant, oppressive and ugly.

A lot of books once disparaged as smutty or blasphemous become classified as classics — or worse: "required reading."

Students might groan now to see James Joyce's Ulysses on a reading list — the book weighs in at around 265,000 words. The scenes that once got it banned for being sexually explicit are often so metaphorical, a 16-year-old boy might read it today and still ask "so, like, where's the hot stuff?"

But maybe during Banned Books Week, the works of Joyce — and Steinbeck, Hemingway, Morrison, Orwell, Rushdie, Capote, Walker and Twain — should be remembered and re-read. Not because they're classics, but because they still can be dangerous, irreverent and profane. They still can put people in a lather. Banned Books Week may be a good time to remember that great books, beginning with the Bible, have the power of the word to upset and inspire.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Here's an idea for weekend fun, pick up a banned book. Look for the good parts, the sections of "Ulysses," "The Grapes Of Wrath," "The Color Purple," "Catch-22," "To Kill A Mockingbird," "Huck Finn," "Lolita," "Harry Potter," "Animal Farm," "A Farewell To Arms" or the "Night Kitchen" that have scenes and language that once made people gasp, blush or shutter and say we can't let people read this. Reread those sections now. See if they still have the power to make you gasp.

This is the 30th year that the American Library Association has saluted banned and challenged books. Most titles on any list of great books have once been banned by some kind of authority; a lot of them still are. There are still calls for "Huck Finn" to be removed from classrooms and libraries because Mark Twain included racial language of the kind people used before the U.S. Civil War, and to be sure, for a long time after. "The Diary of Anne Frank" is still taken off shelves or reading lists not because students might get nightmares to read how the Frank family had to hide in an attic and told they were dragged into Nazi death camps, but because at one brief point, 14-year-old Anne describes her maturing anatomy.

Not every book someone wants to ban is a distinguished as those of course. But look around the world or through history and see what happens in societies that ban ideas, images and beliefs. They wind up as intolerant, oppressive and ugly. A lot of books once disparaged as smutty or blasphemous become classified as classics or worse, required reading. Students might groan now to see James Joyce's "Ulysses" on a reading list. The book weighs in at 265,000 words. The scenes that once got it banned for being sexually explicit are often so metaphorical, a 16-year-old boy might read it today and still ask so, like, where's the hot stuff?

But maybe during Banned Books Week, the works of Joyce and Steinbeck, Hemingway, Morrison, Orwell, Rushdie, Capote, Walker and Twain should be remembered and reread not because they're classics but because they can still be dangerous, irreverent and profane. They can still put people in a lather. Banned Books Week may be a good time to remember that great books, beginning with the Bible, have the power of the word to upset and inspire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMUT")

TOM LEHRER: (Singing) All books can be indecent books, though, recent books are bolder. For filth I'm glad to say is in the mind of the beholder. When correctly viewed, everything is lewd. I could tell you things about Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz is a dirty old man. I thrill to any book like Fanny Hill. And I suppose I always...

SIMON: Tom Lehrer. He should be required listening. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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