Mark Twain. Kurt Vonnegut. Toni Morrison. James Joyce. Henry Miller. Judy Blume. John Steinbeck. J.K. Rowling. James Baldwin. Maya Angelou. John Updike.
That's a pretty impressive list. Sadly, it's not a compilation of most-read authors for weekly Book Clubs. It's a list of some of the most well-known names that have had their works banned or challenged over the years.
Ideas are, indeed, dangerous. Anything that has the potential for liberation must be lethal and powerful enough to break chains, crumble walls, and forge pathways. Books are full of ideas, be they metaphoric or literal, fictionalized or spelled out as manifesto. Thus, the written word will always pose a threat to...someone. Those in power, those that follow certain fundamentalist belief systems, those that are secretly afraid they may be wrong.
I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and heard more than my fair share of warnings about popular culture. Music, in particular, was seen as having subliminal secular charms. I guess by the 1980's, we were in more danger from being misguided by the misadventures of Boy George than the adventures of a boy named Huckleberry.
Whatever the medium, the warnings were laid out for us. Moral land mines were everywhere, and there were no guarantees our souls would survive even the slightest penetration from a single piece of shrapnel. Ironically, it was my time at a private Baptist college (Mercer University Atlanta) that I was fully introduced to the true moral architecture of literature through flawed characters, grayscale ethical dilemmas, & unflinching examinations into the noble, damaged, and savaged souls of humanity. I was taught not only to think, but to not be afraid to think, to not fear having my views challenged, or my sensitivities trampled upon. Mostly, I was taught that books are not perilous weapons, but vital tools.
Tom Joad, Holden Caufield, and Biff Loman became friends in various ways. Sure, I found Tom more agreeable, and always kept Holden at an arm's length, but they were there, markings on a barometer that helped me gauge my own thoughts and feelings at a time when all that seemed to matter to me were, well, my own thoughts and feelings. (Biff and I stopped speaking when he stole my fountain pen, by the way.)
Here are a pair of articles from the American Library Association-sponsored webpage for Banned Books Week. You'll find a piece that explains some of our most cherished American classics and why they were brought under scrutiny at one time or another, and this first article, which simply lists classic works from a list of the Top 100 Literary Works that have been challenged or banned at some juncture.
I hope after you read this post you'll find one of these classics you have yet to read, or one you're eager to revisit, and cherish the freedom you have to read what you choose. It's a privilege we should never take lightly.