Connor Briggs, Co-Chair of York PEN, on his top 10 banned books:
The trend that is currently saturating my Facebook timeline and providing me with prolonged distraction from dissertation research has, up to now, missed me out completely. It is difficult to miss the fact that Facebook users are being nominated to name the top 10 most inspirational books that they have read. It’s a brilliant online trend, one rich in interesting cultural and social discussion that has, for once, made me quite enjoy reading Facebook posts. However, because I am clearly no-one’s first, second, or even twenty-seventh choice for a nomination, I have yet to enlighten my Facebook friends with my choices.
Therefore, I’ve gone in a sulk and nominated myself. Since it’s Banned Books Week in America from 21st – 27th September, I have compiled a list of my top 10 favourite pieces of literature that have at one point in time, been banned. Because I can. So here we go:
- Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
My all-time favourite novel. Rich in exuberant language, the novel exposes the hollowness of the opulent, upper-class lifestyle if our humane, intrinsic desires and needs are not met. It taught me that money really isn’t the most important thing in the world.
Background to Censorship: Banned Books reveal that the novel has been challenged in America due its apparently sexual content (even though there are no sex scenes in the novel), and that parent groups challenge its place in the American school syllabus. It was also challenged in 1987 by the Baptist College.
- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
Unremittingly heart-breaking, but also shimmers as a beacon of hope. The strife and adventures of the Joad family captivated me, and I was amazed by how strongly I loved some characters, but so equally despised others.
Background to Censorship: Banned Books explains that the novel was banned and burned across the US for its socio-political ideology, and its presentation of the poor.
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.
Lent to me by my A-Level English Literature teacher, I found Plath’s ability to relay the internal turmoil of protagonist Esther Greenwood with such precision and clarity almost overwhelming. It scared me so much I fell in love with it.
Background to Censorship: The Bell Jar has been challenged and banned “not only [because of] its profanity and sexuality but for its overt rejection of the woman’s role as wife and mother.”
- Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
This was my childhood, and when I found out that the London County Council banned good old Peter because the book only portrayed “middle class rabbits,” I took it as a personal attack.
- Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman.
I think I actually enjoyed this play mainly because it was one set text for my American Lit module which I’d actually fully completed before the seminar. Nevertheless, it was immensely entertaining and that I enjoyed the play whilst hating Willy Loman makes it even better.
Background to Censorship: Due to its scathing presentation of capitalism, it was banned in many US schools. It was also banned in the USSR due to Miller’s advocacy for freedom of dissent.
- Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials.
I loved reading fantasy novels as a child, but Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was one of my favourites. So dense and thought out, the books are an escapist paradise for both children and adults.
Background to Censorship: The Guardian reports a number of reasons His Dark Materials has been challenged, including its apparently anti-Christian message and that characters drink wine and eat poppy. In fact, there has been so many challenges against Pullman’s trilogy that “he is ranked second in the top 10 books that people have tried to ban across America.”
- John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men.
My school friend created the insanely popular “Lenny brings all the rabbits to the yard, and he’s like, I pet them too hard” Facebook page following it being a GCSE set text. Enough said.
Background to Censorship: Banned Books claim that “Offensive and vulgar language; profanity; racism; sexism; promoting euthanasia and being anti-business are all accusations brought against this American classic.”
- K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Potentially the first full length novel I read on my own without pictures, I went on to become as obsessed with Harry Potter as everyone else. And I found the chess game towards the end utter genius!
Background to Censorship: It was banned in US schools for promoting witchcraft and in UK Christian schools. Right then.
- Dante Alighieri, Inferno
Part 1 of The Divine Comedy, I was part of a group who read Inferno in its original Italian, stopping throughout to explore its historical references, mythology and biblical connotations. It took us months to get through it, but I loved the experience, and I loved Inferno.
Background to Censorship: The controversies and encounters with censorship that Inferno has caused are endless, so I’d suggest having a good google. But in 2012 (2012!), a human rights organisation ironically argued that Dante’s work should be banned for its “racist, homophobic, anti-Islamist and anti-Semitic” themes.
- Arthur Miller, The Crucible.
I studied this in college, and the interest and communal engagement with the text and performances of the work Miller’s play generated was brilliant. And the courthouse scene is bloody marvellous!
Background to Censorship: About Education reports that the play “was banned because it contains “sick words from the mouths of demon-possessed people.””