With Freedom of Information day next week, and some recent Texas-school book banning, we asked the Hothouse Website writers to recall books that they had been banned from reading—and everything they did to eventually read those books.
In middle school, in typical future-English-major fashion, I was obsessed with reading “the classics” (you know, the ones on those lists on Goodreads…). After Catcher in the Rye and Oliver Twist—both of which I barely comprehended—I decided I wanted to read more girl-oriented books, and what better than Lolita. I marched into the library and asked my librarian for a copy—after not finding it on the shelves—to which my librarian blinked, looked 7th grade me up and down, and said, “maybe try The Hunger Games instead.”
I of course bought it on my kindle and read it that night, but still, the audacity of recommending me YA Fiction when I obviously had ~taste~ was scarring to this day.
For me, books weren’t banned individually as much as they were banned en masse. I was a belligerent reader, and books had to be wrested from me with force at home. At school, I had a little more peace to read, as my teachers didn’t seem to care as long if I read under my desk as long as I kept my grades up.
In the eighth grade, my mother banned me from books completely. I don’t remember the reason—I have some vague memory of her getting the idea that books were preventing me from making friends. However, the opposite turned out to be true, as when I begged my friends for help, they delivered. Nearly every day, a different friend gave me a book to read, which I then kept carefully in my locker at school, or if it was small enough, stuck in the secret pocket of my backpack to read on the bus ride home.
Strangely enough, my mother’s book ban did work, if not in the way she expected.
In my freshman year of high school, the Katy school district banned the young adult novel, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Overnight, the book was removed from libraries and school reading lists alike. They never gave a reason, but the racial justice issues of the novel made it obvious. Katy ISD did not want its students reading about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. But, like most other students, I immediately went to a local bookstore and bought the novel. The cashier told me they had nearly sold out; Katy’s ban had fortunately backfired. Parents and teachers fought the district online and in public forums, the outcry even made national news. Tired of the backlash and negative publicity, or perhaps realizing it was having the opposite effect, Katy eventually repealed its ban on The Hate U Give. However, there are still books on KatyISD’s banned list and other district’s lists across the country. We need to continue this united effort to eliminate bans and give students free access to reading everywhere.
Harmony Moura Burk
Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed caused controversy from the moment its author, a Marxist who lived through Brazil’s military dictatorship, began extrapolating his thoughts criticizing hierarchical modes of education and capitalism. To this day, Freire’s works are condemned alongside other Marxist thinkers, to a point where the current president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro is attempting to ban his works. On a personal sense, coming from a conservative small-town background, any Marxist thinkers were strictly in a “do not enter” zone, to be breached only for the sake of understanding arguments I was meant to stand against. Family, school, even some friends all viewed anything close to Marx, or anyone remotely influenced by him, as antithetical to good ideology. Moving past this red line (pun intended), however, opened me up to a new series of valuable insights and critiques. Freire’s genuine care for others, and for students, impacted my views ever since I acquired his book as a pdf (so that I wouldn’t have to worry about hiding a physical copy or answering questions). Everyone should strive for communities of care and a deeper form of learning, and thinkers like Freire help pave the path forward.
Back in my day, we used to slink around the untrodden corridors of bookstores like men. We found the threadbare manga section, glanced behind us, and made a lightning-quick grab for whatever we could get. At the register, we played it cool, pointedly aiming the barcode at the seller before they could flip it over. It was daring. It was exhilarating. It was how we lived.
When I saw the brand-new manga shelves lining the main Barnes & Noble walkway, I nearly fainted. In broad daylight, in front of human eyes, were full volumes of all the best series. Had they no shame? Was manga finally cool in the States? Was I actually overreacting the entire time? Impossible! In my head I’d been a martyr, advancing the cause of a noble art form. I’d endured laughs (deserved) for wearing the latest Hot Topic merch (seriously?) to class. I’d lugged around copies of Tokyo Ghoul and Soul Eater through the cruel hallways of middle school. Now we were…the same. A tragic fate for a teenager.
As a wizened adult, I’ve realized how exciting it is to see the growing popularity of anime and manga in the US. I love seeing an entire community talk about their long-standing passions. Though once relegated to the shadowy corners of my room, my volumes can now be displayed proudly. Even if the Hot Topic merch stays buried.
In high school, I used to spend hours scouring Google’s search results for “disturbing books” or “disturbing movies.” More than anything, I thought these works artfully employed the disturbed and the grotesque to make powerful statements about the depths of humanity.
(It was then that I discovered the Marquis de Sade, and, thanks to some sadistic force in the universe, I shortly after would be portraying him for UIL One Act, getting intermittently flogged in Bass Auditorium during a monologue about the revolution.)
The 120 Days of Sodom is an ornately written barrage of horrifying, satirical, pornography. In it, four pillars of society kidnap a group of children and sequester them in a remote palace for a hedonistic, 120-day romp of absolute depravity (the worst thing you can think of? yea, that times a thousand). The book has been banned by multiple governments and was nowhere to be found in my high school library. I remember ordering a tattered copy online, thick as the Bible. I’d read it during lunch and when the spine could no longer bear the weight of the pages, I visited the librarian—at the time, my girlfriend’s mom. I asked if she could tape the spine up, trying to hide the title, let alone the cover from her, but when she saw it, she let out a nostalgic sigh.
“I read Justine in college,” she said, stroking her finger up and down the freshly taped spine of my book.
The Immortals of Meluha is a fictionalized account of a man based on stories of Shiva the Destroyer from Hindu mythology. Books have never been ‘banned’ to me, but on occasion, my mother would tell me to come back to a book when I was older. The Immortals of Meluha was one of them.
I read this book in the last few months, long past a point where anyone—or any authority—has influenced the books I read. My mother was right to ask me to wait; the first few chapters contain graphic descriptions of drug use and gore. I didn’t like the author’s writing style, so I dropped the trilogy. Had I really wanted to read the book, my mother would have acquired it for me, so I trusted her to tell me when a book was too mature. By now, I’ve read nearly all the books she suggested I wait for.
While I wasn’t exactly begging to read the Bible as a child, what it stood for was definitely off-limits to me. My parents didn’t raise me or my brother to be religious because they wanted us to choose religion if we wanted it when we were older. I remember my friends going to church every Sunday and being jealous, less of their faith, and more of their membership in this exclusive club that I wasn’t a part of. The Bible is complicated and problematic in so many ways, and I’m glad in retrospect that my parents kept me from that when I was at my most impressionable and left me to explore my beliefs on my own terms.