The Dangerous Modern Library List

American Libraries, September 1998 | Go to article overview

The Dangerous Modern Library List


MANY OF THE 100 BEST NOVELS HAVE OFTEN BEEN BANNED, BURNED, AND VILIFIED

The Modern Library's list of the 100 best 20th-century English-language novels generated disagreement and backlash almost as soon as it was announced July 20. Readers around the country debated the merits of the titles and bemoaned the exclusion of such writers as Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Nelson Algren, and Thomas Pynchon. Others questioned the coincidence that 59 of the 100 are currently published by Random House, of which Modern Library is a division.

Meanwhile, American Libraries took a look at the list alongside Banned Books, a chronicle of book removals and challenges maintained by ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom. Not surprisingly, 34 titles on the Modern Library list are on the OIF list, which is 1,323 strong.

OIF Director Judith Krug feels that the fact that only one-third of the titles have been banned calls the legitimacy of the list into question. "The literature that speaks to the human experience and the issues of import at the time of its creation automatically means that controversy attaches."

As with any "best" list, this one is best taken as a springboard to discussion and debate. During Banned Books Week, beginning September 26, library users across the country have yet another reason to read banned books (see ad on p. 53) and try to understand why some people consider them dangerous.

The top novel on the Modern Library list was Ulysses by James Joyce (No. 1). The much-praised, little-understood work was written in 1914-21 but it was burned in the United States in 1918 and did not appear here until 1933. It was also burned in Ireland (1922), Canada (1922), and England (1923).

The Great Gatsby (No. 2) by F. Scott Fitzgerald was challenged as recently as 1987, at Baptist College in Charleston, South Carolina, because of "language and sexual references in the book."

A perennial target of censors, the pedophilic Lolita (No. 4) by Vladimir Nabokov has been banned as obscene in France (1956-1959), in Argentina (1959), and in New Zealand (1960). The South African Directorate of Publications announced in 1982 that Lolita had been taken off the banned list, eight years after a request for permission to market the novel in paperback had been refused.

Brave New World (No. 5) by Aldous Huxley was banned in Ireland in 1932 and is often challenged in American classrooms. Most recently, it was challenged as required reading in the Corona-Norco Unified School District in California in 1993 because it is "centered around negative activity." The book was retained and teachers selected alternatives if students objected to Huxley's novel.

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (No. 7) was banned in Strongsville, Ohio, in 1972, but the school board's action was overturned four years later by a U.S. district court in Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District. The book was challenged at the Dallas Independent School District high school libraries in 1974 and in Snoqualmie, Washington, in 1979, because of its several references to women as "whores."

In 1961, an Oklahoma City group called Mothers United for Decency hired a trailer, dubbed it the "smutmobile," and displayed books deemed objectionable - including Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence (No. 9).

The Grapes of Wrath (No. 10) by John Steinbeck has enjoyed a steady onslaught of objections since its publication in 1939. It was immediately burned by St. Louis Public Library, barred from Buffalo (N.Y.) Public Library on the grounds that "vulgar words" were used, and banned in Kern County, California, the setting of the novel. It has enjoyed a steady stream of bans since. It was challenged in the Greenville, South Carolina, schools in 1991 because the book uses the names of God and Jesus in a "vain and profane manner along with inappropriate sexual references."

In 1973, 11 Turkish book publishers went on trial before an Istanbul martial law tribunal on charges of publishing, possessing, and selling books in violation of an order of the Istanbul martial law command. …

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