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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Crediting the contraband canon

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SARA SHOEMAKE | The Observer
SARA SHOEMAKE | The Observer
I remember exactly where I was on the Monday of Banned Books Week 2011: standing, awkward at best, in front of a room of professors and library staff with a book in my hand. I can’t recall another time where I had to read aloud like that, and it was threatening as a first year student, to say the least.

But then I tossed my nerves aside, for I wasn’t just reading any text or paper — I was reading my favorite chapter in all of literature in celebration of its boldness, its freedom.

Chapter 21 of “Catcher in the Rye” is one of the best representations of childhood innocence I have ever come across in a book. For those of you who need a refresher, it’s the chapter where Holden returns home to find his little sister Phoebe listlessly asleep, spurring him to snoop around her bedroom and admire her childlike imaginings in her school books and journals. Once she awakens to his cigarette smoke, she probes him, in a way only Phoebe can, about his mess-ups — proving to be perhaps the most mature and influential companion for Holden in the entire book.

Also in the chapter, Holden swears 11 times. He breaks into his own house, lying to the elevator boy. He justifies getting kicked out of school … again.

And for these sorts of “vulgar” and “immoral” reasons, “Catcher in the Rye” was first banned in many American schools in 1951, the same year it was published. Salinger’s novel remains both the most censored and the most taught book in high school English classes — a questionable dichotomy, if you ask me.

On one hand, people want to write the book off as a tasteless, violent novel with no lesson or moral; on the other, it’s an undeniable classic that most high school kids will surely encounter on their summer reading lists. So which is it?

In the case of many of the books that have lingered on and off of the “banned” list, there are deep-seated challenges in each book alongside real value.

For example, Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is filled with lies, deceit and insulting humor, but on the other end, it defies racial boundaries and shows the complexities of storytelling. And again, Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is gruesome and chilling in its descriptions of murder and brutal honesty, but it also accurately speaks to the darkness of humanity.

Since this week is Banned Books Week, I think it is necessary to call into question the dueling dynamics at play in the books often banned. Instead of reading these books for the fact that they are controversial, we should read them for their artistic merit — the reason their authors were once proud of their writing before the texts were deemed scandalous.

This summer, I saw Salman Rushdie interviewed at the Dalkey Book Festival in Ireland in support of his memoir “Joseph Anton.” I’ll admit, once the event was over, I bought “The Satanic Verses” from the book fair and not the new memoir.

Thinking back on it, I was wrong to do so, for in the interview, Rushdie elaborated on his years in hiding after “The Satanic Verses” brought about his death sentence by the spiritual leader of Iran for the book’s “blasphemy against Islam.” But this was 25 years ago.

Since then, Rushdie has written five novels. He is not just a writer whose book is cited as justification for killings and bombings and fires. In the interview that day, Rushdie asserted that the dangerous period in his life is over, and he’s done talking about it. He wants his books to be read for their merit, as he had always intended, and not because of “The Satanic Verses” controversy.

In this vein, I think this week is the perfect occasion to pick up a once-banned book and read beneath the surface of its censure. We should not only remember these distinctive novels but we should also celebrate them — for both their unashamed oppositions to what is “acceptable” and for their artistic merit, which go hand in hand.

Reading at Banned Books Week from “Catcher” is now one of my favorite memories in the Saint Mary’s library. There is something liberating in sharing my most-loved chapter, in all its nerve, with a group listening for Salinger’s ingenuity and honesty — and that’s what Banned Books Week is all about.