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A selection of banned books

It is one of our favorite times of year in libraryland – Banned Books Week (September 26 – October 2)! This upcoming week we celebrate the right to read and talk about the importance of taking a stand against censorship. To kick off the week, we are sharing some reviews from NHFPL staff members on their favorite challenged books – all of which you can check out with your library card.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Review written by Isaac Shub

Tropic of Cancer is one of the most famous banned books of all time. Henry Miller, who grew up in Brooklyn, wrote it over the course of several years while living in Paris in the early 1930s. When the book was finally published in France in 1934, the US Customs Service banned it from being imported into the US. Famously, a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice called the book, “a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity”. Tropic of Cancer was tough to get ahold of in the US for a while, and wasn’t free of legal challenge until 1964, when a Supreme Court case overruled labelling it obscene. 

What was all the fuss about? Reading the book even today, many will come away shocked at the profanity and frank tone. Miller’s graphic sexual discussions, anarchic viewpoints, and contempt for god and organized religion were the primary sources of early repulsion (“I have found god,” Miller wrote, “but he is insufficient”). Today, readers may be more put off by his use of racial epithets and casual sexism. Yet trying to detect social and political beliefs through the lens of artistic expression can prove misleading. During his life, he was active with the Socialist Party of America and he called black socialist leader Hubert Harrison his childhood idol. The authorial tone in his work is never unkind, but it is definitely rude. As one commentator wrote: “Henry Miller continues to be a writer who causes much consternation amongst readers and critics alike.” 

And for others, Tropic of Cancer is an unmitigated literary masterpiece and a personal lifesaver. George Orwell urged that, “anyone who has not done so, at least read Tropic of Cancer.” Samuel Beckett lauded it as “a momentous event in the history of modern writing.” Anais Nin penned the book’s preface. In the end, it’s not the obscene content that made Tropic famous. The characteristic that solidified its legacy and kept it in print, enthralling new readers for coming on 90 years, is Miller’s poetic imagination; his groundbreaking creativity; his warm embrace of life despite its sufferings and cruelties–these are the qualities that make the work endure. Miller championed the human spirit in a chaotic and desperate world. Tropic of Cancer is a smart, passionate, phantasmagoric read. And like all books, it too, is not for everyone.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson 

Review written by Martha Blume 

This book is one of my all-time favorite reads. Beautifully and sensitively written by Katherine Paterson, it tells the story of an unexpected friendship between Jess and Leslie. Jess lives in a farmhouse that’s way too full of girls. His older sisters pine away for material goods that his working-class father can’t afford. His much-younger sister, May Belle is the only one in his family who “gets” him at all. 

At school, the only thing Jess can do well is run. But his triumph as fastest in his 5th grade class is short-lived when Leslie arrives in town from a big city. Her family is well-off. Her parents are artists and intellectuals and are nothing like Jess’s. Self-assured and unwilling to care what others think about her, she joins the boys’ race and wins! At first Jess is crushed, but Leslie doesn’t go away. His nearest neighbor, the two form a bond of friendship based on their sensitivity and imagination.  

One day they swing across a creek to an uninhabited wildland that Leslie christens “Terabithia”. She declares herself queen and Jess king, and the two create an elaborate and secret imaginary kingdom where they reign.  Jess and Leslie both love art and music; their music teacher, Miss Edmunds, befriends Jess and encourages his talent. One Saturday morning, Miss Edmunds takes Jess to an art museum. Jess feels honored that Miss Edmunds asked him but a little guilty that he didn’t invite Leslie. While Jess is away, Leslie has a tragic accident. While the accident is devastating to Jess, it helps him grow closer to his family and begin to come to terms with the sadness in life that accompanies the joy.  

This book won the Newbery Medal in 1978. 

Moi les hommes, je les déteste (English: I Hate Men) by Pauline Harmange

Review by Emmett McMullan

This summer I read the new essay by Pauline Harmange, Moi les hommes, je les déteste, and I could not put it down. The essay made a stir upon publication, and a special adviser to the French Ministry for gender equality called for its suppression; the publisher refused to retract the essay, and the government disavowed the adviser’s initiative. This prompted the essay to explode in popularity, naturally, so now we are grateful to have this (almost) banned book on our shelves at the Mitchell Branch, in English as I Hate Men.

It is a brief text that dives intimately into the experience of loving particular men, but acknowledging an anger felt towards Men, writ large. Harmange explores the way that women’s movements and feminist movements have struggled to come to a consistent footing on the subject of men in general. Historically in women’s movements, the “enemy” has been structures and systems: the right to vote, the rights to work and do banking, the right to live without fear of violence and harassment, the right to true financial equity with men, and so on. Activism has frequently brought women’s movements into solidarity with many other marginalized groups in the past century, and this has often brought many men onto the same picket lines as women and non-binary activists, fighting for justice in common struggles against racism, against ableism, and against misogyny. How do we reconcile our frustrations with the systems made to benefit men, with our affection for the men we love? If we hate men, can we even weigh that hate on the same scale as the hate that men feel towards women and people of other genders?

I come from a big family of mostly men. My siblings and I were all assumed male at birth, and I have a mother and a father. I never heard somebody say at home, “A woman belongs in front of the stove,” without irony, but it was not a utopia either. How could it be? This origin led me to a dramatic identity crisis when I came out as trans non-binary in my early 20s, because if I wasn’t one of the McMullan boys (or men?) then how could I belong in my family? It has been a process of unraveling all the ways I was expected to be a man and was treated like a man, asked to treat other people and things the way “a man would,” and reading I Hate Men has helped me to articulate my feelings about the common struggle against toxic masculinity and the patriarchy. Is it a perfect essay? It does not have to be. I Hate Men illuminates a fundamental difference between the oppressor hating the oppressed, and vice versa. Should a snake care if a mouse hates it? No. Then why am I afraid of hating men?