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October 11, 2012

Students put spotlight on banned books

By Richard Whitby
The Daily Star

---- — What do “The Hunger Games,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Harry Potter” have in common?

They’ve all been banned or at least challenged somewhere in the United States, according to the American Library Association, a fact being highlighted this week on the Hartwick College campus by Sigma Tau Delta, the international honor society for English students.

“We’ve been encouraging people to read banned books, and we’ve been asking them (about) certain books they’ve read themselves,” said Kendra Shedina, a senior English major from Guilderland.

The society has set up a table in the Dewar Union building and is inviting fellow students to peruse lists of banned and challenged books. Most of the students have little trouble finding at least one or two works they’ve read, because the lists contain some of the most popular titles for children and adults.

“These books are part of our curriculum,” Shedina said. “I know in high school people read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and even ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ And so, it’s just an interesting response, where they’re shocked. … Once we explain to them why they’re banned, they start to understand a little bit.”

And while it’s easy to think of book banning as a phenomenon restricted to less urbane regions than the Northeast, John Knowles novel, “A Separate Peace,” was challenged in an Oneida County school district in 1980 as a “filthy, trashy novel,” according to the library association. The same district also attacked John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“I grew up in New Jersey, and we read ‘Tom Jones’ in our senior year,” said Julia Suarez Hayes, an assistant professor of English and adviser to Sigma Tau Delta. “And that was not without controversy. Many parents didn’t like that, and that’s a classic.”

The students pointed out that efforts to restrict some works often have the opposite effect, making the books more attractive to readers.

“That’s why I read ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’” Shedina said. “I wanted to read why it was banned.”

Tyler Bailey, a senior from Spencer, said would-be book banners are often uncomfortable with the ideas expressed in the books they attack.

“You can sit there and read the comfortable books that society approves of, or you can read the incendiary books, like ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ or ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Brave New World’ that sort of open your eyes,” he said. “And they’re by these authors who see truth with a capital T. What’s the point of sitting there reading the comfortable books?”

“When you take ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ for example, who wants to actually think that such a thing could possibly happen to, say, America or another great country?” he asked. “You don’t want to think Big Brother is really watching, watching over you the entire time, because that’s not a comfortable thought.”

Some of the controversial books, such as Susan Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” are 21st-century additions to the lists, but others, such as “Brave New World,” have been there for decades.

Written by Aldous Huxley in 1931 and published a year later, the dystopian novel about a future society mired in triviality, remains a target for censors, ranking seventh on the library association’s list of challenged books for the past decade.

“The reason they’re still banned is that there’s some truth to them, isn’t there?” Bailey asked. “I think that what, for me, at least, that’s why they’re so interesting, because even though they were written in the ‘40s or something, it still holds true.”