Alex: Lolita’s reputation precedes it. As a fan, I struggled with the knowing smirks and comments about pedophilia—Lolita is so much more than that! It’s really about language, I would say, an exercise in aesthetics. But I realized that to diminish the book’s topic is to diminish part of what makes it so powerful. Lolita is a masterpiece precisely because it combines the most soul-crushingly beautiful prose with a topic that is inherently abhorrent.
Unlike so many of the books that have been banned at various points in history, Lolita’s topic is as horrific to modern sensibilities as it was when it was first published. But for an unambiguously immoral tale, Lolita is hard to read only because it isn’t. It’s lyrical, sensual, metafictively playful with language and culture, a censorious love letter to America. It’s impossible not to be entranced by the language, and by Humbert Humbert, so that somewhere along the way we forget to judge him. We’re made complicit in his crimes by the pleasure we get out of reading about them. It’s a highly uncomfortable realization, particularly in its implications beyond the bounds of fiction—we’re confronted with the hypocrisy of our own voyeuristic culture. I guess it’s no wonder that a book that challenges our collective sense of moral superiority is frequently banned by those most invested in it. But ultimately, for me, the book’s power really does come back to its language; after all, “you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
Joey: What could possibly be more ironic than Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Sci-Fi classic Fahrenheit 451 holding a prominent place on lists of the most banned and challenged books of all time? Guy Montag is a fireman. But he doesn’t put fires out—he starts them. In Bradbury’s imagined future, books are anathema, and any citizen found in possession of such contraband has their homes and possessions consumed by flames. But as Montag carries out his duties, he meets a cast of characters that leave him questioning the path humanity has taken and the future it may yet obtain.
Much of the brilliance of Fahrenheit 451 lies in Bradbury’s powerful, elegant prose. There’s a reason the novel often ends up assigned in high school English classes. Its great message is not a difficult one to grasp, but is unspeakably important to internalize. Books are the great enemy for the government of Bradbury’s future because they represent individualism, abstract thought, and intelligence—some of the greatest possible threats to totalitarian control of the populace. Books, and the ideas contained therein, are inextricably tied to freedom of thought, speech, and expression. And, in the author’s mind, these are things worth fighting and possibly even dying for.
Leaves of Grass
Lara: It’s hard to consider the poet Walt Whitman “dangerous,” especially because he so reveled in nature and sought to reveal human truths. But in 1855, when Whitman first published Leaves of Grass, the poetry collection caused quite a stir. Most found Whitman’s (now classic) work “obscene,” not to mention mighty confusing at the time. Whitman even lost his job with the Department of the Interior, when a supervisor found an open copy of Leaves of Grass displayed among the poet’s other belongings. However offensive Whitman’s poetry may have seemed, modern readers can thankfully now enjoy the work without censorship, and gain insight into—and even learn from—Whitman’s philosophy about the world, and himself. It’s a good thing, too: Whitman’s poems manage to stir the senses and even the soul. In the infamous “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” The philosophy is simple: We’re all connected, and human, too.
The Bluest Eye
Leigh: Toni Morrison artfully commands the power of the written word even in her very first novel, and even while covering taboo issues from rape and incest to self-hate and racial inequalities. This book was banned in many states due to its harsh themes and profanity throughout, but the story is designed to be both moving and disturbing, to evoke emotion and response. The narrative is a bit disjunctive, jumping from past to present, and switching points of view on everyone except for the main character, who is even left voiceless in the stance of her story. It has the unease of a friend telling you a secret you wished they hadn’t. Morrison’s prose forms a beautifully poetic sorrow, and has helped me grow in ways I can’t accurately describe. Though The Bluest Eye is unsettling, it’s a great tool for conversation on subjects that should be brought to light and discussed.
The Agony of Alice
Ashley: Behind this absolutely adorable cover lies an equally adorable story about an adolescent girl named Alice who is very anxious about growing up and going through the agony of sixth grade. If you’re wondering how something so cute and endearing could end up on the American Library Association’s most challenged books list consistently over the past two decades, it’s probably because it talks about periods (no, not the “comma without the tail” kind) and kissing. While those are admittedly very big and real obstacles faced during pubescence that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor treats with utmost respect, there’s more emphasis placed on the everyday embarrassments that afflict Alice as she searches for a female role model in the absence of her mother, who died when Alice was very young. There are the cringe-worthy types of embarrassments, like the moment where Alice disrupts a school play when she acts on her feelings of jealousy towards her sometimes-rival, sometimes-friend. There are also the quiet, happy embarrassments, like when Mrs. Plotkin, Alice’s teacher, treats Alice with a special kindness even after Alice shows contempt towards Mrs. Plotkin in front of the class. Personally, I’m embarrassed that I never read The Agony of Alice when I was younger, but I look forward to delving further into the series even as an adult.