The 29th Annual Banned Books Week will be held September 25th through October 2nd, and will involve special events and displays at libraries and bookstores across the nation. Banned Books Week began in 1982 as a collective effort between the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers and the National Association of College Stores to raise awareness of censorship problems in the United States and abroad. Surprisingly, after 28 years, it remains the only national celebration of the freedom to read.
Although it receives little press coverage, book censorship of all kinds (including book burning), continues today. Challenges to the content of books come from parents, teachers, clergy members, elected officials, and organized groups, typically because of objections to language, violence, sexual or racial themes, or religious viewpoint. In 2009, the American Library Association counted 460 challenges, mostly in schools. The majority of cases, however, go unreported.
The American Library Association reports that 42 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been banned or challenged at some point, including nine of the top ten. These include The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Ulysses, and To Kill a Mockingbird (which ranked 4th on the Top 10 most-challenged list in 2009). Since the first Harry Potter book was released in 1997, fundamentalist Christian groups have attempted to ban the series because of the use of witchcraft as a central theme. The most ironic banning attempt targeted Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which is itself about censorship and the destruction of books.
Independent bookstores have typically been in the lead in supporting freedom of expression, from City Lights Books' Lawrence Ferlinghetti publishing Alan Ginsberg's Howl to Shakespeare and Company's Sylvia Beach publishing James Joyce's Ulysses. Both books were banned, yet the bookstore owners pressed on, and in Ferlinghetti's case the result was a Supreme Court ruling that established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work with redeeming social importance.
Examples of censorship such as those listed above are the reason that Banned Books Week is important, and why it is more than simply another marketing gimmick used by bookstores to generate sales. In a time when freedom of expression has been weakened in the name of both Homeland Security and political correctness, we must remind ourselves and our children that censorship still exists in America and that we must speak out against it.