Leaves of Grass. Beloved. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Fahrenheit 451. The Color Purple. Native Son.
Classics, right? Yes. But also: these are books that—at one time, and many of them still—straight up pissed people off.
They challenged common notions of propriety and sexuality; they called systemic racism to task; they highlighted the humanity of people whose humanity those in power thrived on denying. They spurned censorship. They asked us to be better. They saw everything and demanded much.
That’s what makes literature great; it is also, too often, that which leads to pyres and angry parents and petitions to library boards, among other kinds of book bans.
Banned Books Week exists to highlight the bravery of art like this. It serves to remind us how much is at stake when we choose silence and complacency over speaking truth to power. It asks us to absorb and stand up with marginalized voices and unpopular opinions; that’s where our best, richest future lies.
This Sunday, as Banned Books Week began, it struck me as congruent that, across the nation, athletes were taking a knee in protest. That’s certainly not what many of their audiences wanted. They wanted to be entertained, not challenged. Those with the most power invited the action by calling football players too “soft,” and slurring Colin Kaepernick, the first player to take a knee in protest of police violence.
It is brave and necessary and lonely to take a stand against very powerful people who have a vested interest in your silence, but it’s what great artists—from athletes to writers—do. Starting Banned Books Week with the image of teams kneeling across the nation felt powerful and meaningful. Players had the option not to follow Colin Kaepernick’s example, especially after the president of the United States opted to slander him publicly; they chose, instead, to follow suit.
Readers, too, have the option not to follow writers into the fray: to hear that challenged books are “dangerous,” and to pick up something else instead. Something safe. Something easy. It’s as unappealing to be thought of (in various ages) as a socialist—or a hippie or another form of “radical”—based on your reading material, as it is to be thought of as unpatriotic because you did not stand for an anthem.
Yes, it’s easier to pick another title; it’s safer to go another way. But Banned Books Week endures because enough readers don’t want to be safe, or coddled, or eased away from reality; they want to be challenged, to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to empathize with those with drastically different life experiences. To read toward change. To welcome another viewpoint, to look up from a book and see a widened world, and to say, “what’s next?”
We’re living in dangerous times. People want us to be quiet. They want us to stand still and put our hands over our hearts and look straight ahead and pretend gross injustices aren’t occurring in the periphery. They sure don’t want us to look at the injustices straight on and name them.
But we’re not all complying. We’re taking knees. We’re taking to the streets. And I have to believe, this Banned Books Week—have to hope, have to know—that somewhere off stage, someone is writing something powerful that’s going to call all of those in power to task for what they’re perpetuating.
Somewhere, words are going down on paper that will be banned. And that’s a glorious thing.
There’s an uncomfortable onslaught that comes with being banned, sure; for a while, at least, those wedded to the status quo feel comfortable declaring you the enemy. But the life of a book that’s been banned (or of words spoken in protest, or of an image of a fist raised in defiance, a knee taken in solidarity) is so much longer than that of a book that asked little of anyone. The lines and pages and volumes that stick and stay and thrive are those that ask the most of us.
There’s a power in banned materials, phrases, and sentiments that can’t be equaled, and that’s worth striving toward. Art should challenge all of us, but especially the institutions that ask it to be “safe.”
My wish for all writers is that they produce work strong enough that it rubs someone small the wrong way. May your work call out the worst in us. May it demand more of the culture it responds to. May it lead to change.
I think that’s the best we can wish for any title: may it someday be banned, for all of the right reasons.
This Riot Recommendation is sponsored by Flatiron Books and Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence.
What would you say to the books in your life? Dear Fahrenheit 451 is librarian Annie Spence’s collection of love letters and break-up notes to the iconic and eclectic books she has encountered over the years.
There are few things in life a bookworm enjoys as much as a book about books. It appears we cannot have too much of a good thing. These are the books that are made for the bookish so, whether it’s fiction or fact-based, tell us in the comments below: what’s your favorite book about books?
Samantha Irby and Robin Sloan talk about their favorite books in our newest podcast, Recommended. Download it for free from Apple Podcasts or Google Play.
I belong to two face-to-face and two online book clubs. Recently, a friend suggested we form a two-person book club. Linda had started one with her grandson and deemed it big fun. We have just finished our first book, and she was right, it’s rewarding on many levels — a totally different book sharing experience. I prefer watching movies and television with other people, and more and more, I realize even though I read alone, I love bonding over books too.
We both have long lists of books we want to read, so I sent Linda a list of recent additions to my TBR pile and offered to let her pick first. Included on my list:
Linda chose In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi. This is like when children divide a piece of cake and discover one divides and the other picks.
For our second book, Linda emailed me a list of her TBR books:
I picked An American Sickness by Elisabeth Rosenthal. It was a hard choice because I wanted to read all of her books. I already own I Contain Multitudes and The New Jim Crow, and I’ve already read Between the World and Me twice. Luckily, Linda and I have a lot of overlapping interests.
Because we usually meet on the phone we decided to talk once a week. If we have the bandwidth we do Facetime, otherwise, we chat, with our book club meetings lasting 60-90 minutes. Of course, two-person book clubs are very flexible. In one of my face-to-face book clubs, we spend more time picking when to meet next than we do discussing the book.
Linda and I decided to divide books into chunks of around 100 pages. That’s not too much homework for a week, and it turned out to be a reasonable amount of content to remember for each meeting. We both read with a Kindle and highlight passages to discuss. This came in very handy when we wanted to quote lines when making points.
Susan Faludi structure In the Darkroom into three sections of around a hundred pages each, which worked out well for us. We decided to add a fourth meeting to cover internet research on the book. We each promised not to read ahead and not to do outside research until the final meeting. This also turned out to be a great decision. Our method helped us progress through the book together, keeping details fresh in our minds, and letting us both speculate about what might happen without revealing spoilers.
In the Darkroom turned out to be a fantastic first book. It is considered one of the major books of 2016. On the surface, the In the Darkroom is about Faludi researching why her father underwent gender reassignment at age 76. Her father was born István Károly Friedman, November 1, 1927, in Hungary. Eventually, he moved to America and became Steven. After he abandoned his family, he moved back to Hungary and became Stefánie. As Susan Faludi digs deeper she learns her father was a survivor of the Nazis’ invasion of Hungary during WWII. István survived by pretending not to be Jewish, even at times by wearing a Nazi armband.
In America, Steven became a successful photo manipulator, married and had two children. His work appeared in major magazines decades before Photoshop, providing edited images of reality. This is one metaphor for the book’s title. Another interpretation of the title is wondering who Steven is in the dark room of his mind. Faludi’s father is a master of manipulating how other people view his identity as if he could dodge and burn his appearance to others.
Thus, In the Darkroom is about hidden gender and Jewish identity. Two very intense topics for such a small volume. But there’s more, a lot more. It’s also about the politics of hate. István admired the Magyars who hated the Jews before the war. Faludi writes how the Hungarian Magyars turned Jews over to the Nazis even faster than people in Germany, so it becomes a profound mystery how István can admire a national identity that hates his Jewish identity. Stefánie even supports the current right-wing regime of Jobbik, a racist neo-Nazi nationalist organization that’s gain power in current day Hungary.
Since we read this book just after Charlottesville I realized the title, In the Darkroom, is not just a metaphor for Susan Faludi’s father editing his/her life – it’s about how we all live in a darkroom editing our own identity. I cannot praise this book highly enough.
One of the many virtues of book clubs is they get us to read books we might not have read on our own. I buy far more books than I ever read. Our two-person book club turned out to be an excellent venue for going deep into a title languishing on my TBR pile. Larger book clubs can achieve the same results if everyone reads the book and contributes to the discussion. Often that doesn’t happen. It’s easier to express elaborate thoughts in an online book club because we can type as much as we want, and when we want. But the two-person club offers a chance for deeper levels of conversation, and that’s very appealing.
I can’t keep up with all the book clubs I’m in. I enjoy my face-to-face book clubs mostly for socializing, but I’m usually disappointed we don’t explore our reads in detail. I enjoy the online book clubs because there is more room for dissecting our reading reactions, yet I miss the face-to-face discussion. My new two-person book club is a satisfying compromise
I’m often met with surprise when I mention that I have a few books going at once. Often followed by, ‘how do you manage it?’ and ‘don’t you get confused?’
The truth is, sometimes I do get confused. Though that doesn’t happen very often anymore. I’ve been juggling multiple books for so long now, that I’ve kind of gotten the hang of it! So here are a few tips to help you do the same:
1. Read different genres
This is probably the most important tip. Nothing will confuse you more than reading multiple books which have too many similarities. It also kind of defeats the purpose of reading lots of different books at once. You want diversity in your reading. You want to not get stuck on just one book or genre. So have a few going at once.
I’ll usually have at least three: One novel – any genre. One non-fiction. And maybe a poetry collection, short story collection, or graphic novel. Something that’s a bit faster, or that you can dip in and out of without too much of a problem.
2. Read different books at different places
My favourite place to read is in bed. But I don’t always get time to read in bed. If I do, it’s often for only a short amount of time before bed. It’s not very conducive to the full reading life I want to have. I do have a one hour commute every single day. So I’ve gotten into the habit of reading during my tram journey. But I often can’t read the same books in these two different places. I can read serious and heavy books in bed, but when I try to read them at 7am while squashed into a tiny tram seat, my eyes glaze over. So that’s resulted in me usually picking a quick, breezy light-hearted read during my morning commute. Something that perks me up for the day ahead! So make sure you choose your books based on when and where you’ll be best able to read them.
3. Read through different mediums
As much as I love reading my paperbacks, it’s not exactly the best way to read when I’m travelling. Or when I’m going to meet my friends and they are super late as usual, and I need some way to pass the time. Which is why my various books come in various mediums. I have the paperback or hardback which I reserve for at home reading. Then I’ll have a book on my Kindle for any commutes or general travelling. Maybe an audio book for when I’m out for a walk and need something to listen to.
4. Read for your mood – not for your TBR list
I think there are times when we tend to have a fixed idea about the books we’re going to read. Which is great – sometimes! Other times, it’s just good to go with the flow. If I start a book that I really want to read, and I feel myself running out of steam, I usually start a new one. It proves a good distraction for a short while until I’m ready to go back to the original book again. Just because we’re not in the mood for a book, doesn’t mean abandon ship ‘til who knows when. It can mean taking a short break. Or adding another list to your growing pile of ‘currently readings.’
5. Take all the time you need
Lastly, don’t freak out if you’re taking months and months to finish a book because you’re reading too many books at the same time! Sometimes it’ll happen. And sometimes you’ll find yourself reading too many books in the space of a really short time. It happens. The most important thing – always – is that you’re having a good time reading!
The dog days are over, and cool, crisp weather approaches. Spruce up your fall wardrobe with new lightweight scarves.
There are few things more satisfying in the fraught world we live in than hearing the dulcet tones of Idris Elba, which is why this very excellent video of him reading erotic fan fiction is a veritable delight.
Well yes, let’s do more of this.
The hundreds of romance novels — perhaps thousands, if you include the self-published ones that constitute their own phenomenon — just published or due to appear in the next few months essentially fall into two categories. There are the Regency romances (descended from the superb Georgette Heyer, whose first one, “Regency Buck,” appeared in 1935). And there are the contemporary young-woman-finding-her-way stories that are the successors to the working-girl novels that for decades provided comfort and (mild) titillation to millions of young women who dreamed of marrying the boss.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a column about romance in the NYT written by a dude is extremely condescending.
I make a decision about what to review based on a number of factors: Is the book newsworthy? Is it a book that I think our readers should know about? Is it a novel that’s doing something new, or a nonfiction book that has an interesting argument? Is the author important? Then, of course, there are my own tastes — what’s exciting and enticing to me.
A look behind the curtain at the work life of Parul Seghal, the new Senior Editor of the New York Times Book Review.
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Annotated brings you the story of love, punctuation, and the Oxford comma. Download it for free on Apple Podcasts or Google Play.
This week is Banned Books Week, the week we celebrate having the freedom to read whatever we want. Did you know that even children’s books are challenged sometimes? It’s true. You might wonder why anyone would try to ban a picture book or a young adult novel. It turns out that there are a whole lot of reasons, including parents’ desires to protect their children from things like magic (the Harry Potter series), scientifically accurate sexual education (Where Willy Went), and even depictions of people at the beach (Where’s Waldo?).
The American Library Association keeps a list of frequently challenged children’s books based on reports from schools and libraries across the United States. In many cases, children aren’t able to have access to these books at home, so it’s crucial that schools and libraries are able to keep books in circulation and preserve access for all children. And if today’s youth are anything like I was as a child, knowing that a book has been banned or challenged just makes it infinitely more compelling.
Here are some surprising banned children’s books from ALA’s list to check out in honour of Banned Books Week.
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
This picture book is based on the real-life experience of Jazz Jennings, who is now a teenager. Jazz knows she is a girl who loves pink and dressing up like a mermaid, even though her family is a little confused until they visit a doctor. From there, the book explains what it means to be transgender with simple language and appealing illustrations. Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to guess why this book has been challenged by parents in some areas—but in response, there have also been supportive readings of the book organized across the U.S.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Published in 1995, this book follows 10-year-old Kenny and his family on their vacation from Flint, Michigan to Birmingham, Alabama—just when violence is about to sweep over Birmingham. This book calls attention to a dark time in American history, but it was officially challenged because of “offensive language.”
Where’s Waldo? by Martin Hanford
Yes, believe it or not, your favourite elusive stripe aficionado has been challenged. Why? Apparently, a version published in 1987 showed a woman’s bare breast in one of its beach scenes. It is a true challenge to notice one bare breast amid the confusing and jam-packed scenes these books contain, and I almost want to congratulate whoever found it. Except that trying to ban the book on that basis is completely ridiculous.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki
This picture book is about a dark chapter in American history: the decision to send thousands of Japanese-Americans into internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Once they get to the camp, Shorty and his dad decide to build a baseball diamond and create their own league. As far as I can tell, this book is challenged mostly because a racial slur appears in the text—a slur that is no doubt accurate to the time period and is in no way endorsed by the book.
Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
This was one of my very favourite middle-grade book series when I was still middle grade, and I was surprised to see it on ALA’s list. The series follows smart bookworm Anastasia through her pre-teen and teen years. The series does have a lot of references to realistic aspects of teen life: drinking, sex, stuffing one’s bra…Like Judy Blume, Lois Lowry has the distinction of appearing more than once on this ALA list. Her book The Giver also appears.
It’s a Girl Thing: How to Stay Healthy, Safe, and In Charge by Mavis Jukes
Last but not least, I wanted to include this girl-power 90s guide to adolescence because my mom totally bought it for me in, oh, 1999. I remember looking through it with a friend and wondering if the exciting changes detailed within (periods, bras, boys) would ever happen to us. Anyway, yes, people even object to a straightforward puberty guide book for girls. The What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls and What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Boys also show up on ALA’s list. Because knowing how your body works should apparently be banned.
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I visited Salem for the first time a few weeks ago, and I still haven’t processed the experience. I have been obsessed with going to Salem for what feels like my whole life. I’m very interested in the history of Puritans and the trials, but equally fascinated by the town’s current obsession with witchcraft, which manifests in everything from cool witch shops to hokey tourist traps. But because fall is coming (though it doesn’t feel like it yet), I thought I would put together a list of must read books on Salem (or Salem adjacent, really). This is by no means exhaustive (not sure if that is even possible), so please comment with your own suggestions!
The Crucible. I figured I would get this classic out of the way. Though I think Miller’s representation of the Witch Trials is overly relied on (it is an allegory for the McCarthy Trials! They aren’t the same thing!) it’s an important and good read.
How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather. On the other side of the spectrum is How to Hang a Witch, Mather’s modern day tale of a high school student descended from Cotton Mather. I don’t want to give anymore away, but it’s AMAZING and the sequel is coming soon.
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé. This novel imagines an epic for Tituba, the enslaved woman accused of witchcraft in Salem. Tituba is featured in many of the nonfiction accounts of the trials, but skimmed over in much of the fiction. This is Conde’s attempt to rectify that.
The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Though you’ve probably read The Scarlet Letter in high school, The House of Seven Gables is certainly worth a read. The story centers around a mansion in Salem, MA, and the (maybe) supernatural happenings. Bonus points, because you can visit the actual House of Seven Gables in Salem.
Witch Child by Celia Rees. Witch Child tells the story of Mary, a young girl whisked away to the “New World” after watching her grandmother hang for witchcraft. But Mary is taken to Massachusetts, where the Witch Trails take place.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent. In the Heretic’s Daughter, Kent tells the story of Sarah Carrier, the daughter of a woman accused of witchcraft. This novel is hard to put down, and a bit darker than some of the above mentioned books.
A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi. In A Break With Charity, Rinaldi tells the story of Sussana, a young girl who serves as witness to the Salem Witch Trials.
Crane Pond by Richard Francis. In Crane Pond, Richard Francis tells the story of Samuel Sewall, the only judge to later apologize for his role in the trials. If you want a little difference in perspective, Crane Pond is an interesting read.
The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal and Hysteria in 1692 Salem by Stacy Schiff. While not as academically rigorous as some non-fiction on the trials, Schiff’s book is an engaging account of the events and a great starting place for those with little familiarity with the history of Salem.
A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience by Emerson Baker. In A Storm of Witchcraft, historian Emerson Baker argues that the perfect “storm” of events enable the Salem Witch Trials, and places the trials in the context of the broader Atlantic world.
The Salem Witch Trials Reader. This reader features primary source documents from the time of the trials and is a great resource.
The Witchcraft of Salem Village by Shirley Jackson. Definitely written for children, The Witchcraft of Salem Village is a brief accounting of the trials, worth picking up if you are a fan of Jackson.
The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Salem Witch Trials in Nineteenth Century America by Gretchen Adams. In The Specter of Salem, Adams focuses on the ways in which the Salem Witch Trails were enshrined in the collective memory of Americans. A fascinating read, especially taken in the context of the continued tourism and fascination with Salem.
The Salem Witch Trials: A Day by Day Chronicle of a Community under Siege by Marilynne Roach. I’ve never read a book quite like this, as it’s really a very detailed timeline of the Salem Witch Trials. If you want a very concrete idea of the events, than you can do no better then this very thorough read.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Magic edited by Owen Davies. This edited collection focuses on much more than Salem, but gives greater context to the witch trials in America and their memory in America.
Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. In Salem Possessed, historians Boyer and Nissenbaum explore the social history of Salem and the lives of those that made the witch trials possible.
Annotated brings you the story of love, punctuation, and the Oxford comma. Download it for free on Apple Podcasts or Google Play.
Backwards bookshelves are controversial, here in the book world.
You know the concept: you take all your pretty, well-loved books and just… turn them the wrong way out.
J. Crew did it a few years ago as part of the display in their stores. Joanna Gaines does it sometimes on Fixer Upper. It’s been cropping up lately…like the ubiquitous color-coded bookshelves that are so popular right now…and readers have kind of strong feelings about the whole idea.
Some readers love it… some readers hate it… some readers just don’t get it. (“Why would you…How do you find the book you want…Why?!!”)
I myself am a fan…I had my books turned backward for the whole summer and I kind of loved it. It was simple and clean and pretty.
Maybe someday I’ll return to the traditional alphabetical…or even the elusive autobiographical. But I loved the simplicity of turning all my books backward, at least for a little while.
What do you think? Are backwards bookshelves beautiful or crazy-making? Do you love it or hate it?
More about bookshelf organizational systems:
Would You Organize Your Books By Color?
7 Ways to Organize Your Books (Other than Alphabetically)
The dog days are over, and cool, crisp weather approaches. Spruce up your fall wardrobe with new lightweight scarves.