In my time as a journalist, I’ve written about all manner of interesting court cases, from one about an employee suing his boss over flatulence to one involving a lightsaber-making business. But of all the legal cases I’ve ever heard of, the one that most sticks in my mind is one I’ve only read about – a peculiar little case called United States v. One Book Called Ulysses.
The proceeding dealt with obscenity laws and freedom of expression issues at the time. But what really imprinted the issue in my mind since I first learned about it sometime in my school years are two things. The first is my love for all things James Joyce. The second is the mental image conjured up by the name alone.
I can’t help but laugh at the idea of the entire country in conflict with a single book, let alone a novel that’s now recognized as one of the greatest works of the 20th century. Just picture an army lined up against a worn copy of the book, its title emblazoned in prominent letters across the front, and try not to smile.
When I first read about the court case, I couldn’t help feeling I was learning about something quaint and dated. The stuff of book banning was something that happened generations ago. We’d learned our lesson, and were more willing to accept books we might not personally agree with in the interest of greater freedom of expression.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week announced plans to develop statewide standards to shield students from pornography and obscene content in public schools, following the heels of conversation across the state about books in public schools that some parents have found objectionable. Most of the content has dealt with LBGTQ issues, but parents also seem opposed to books they believe deals with critical race theory.
As chance would have it, I’ve been working my way through an illuminating collection by Joseph Frank called “Lectures on Dostoevsky." And the stories contained within it about Dostoevsky’s efforts to avoid Russia’s censors, and the need to write around some topics rather than address them directly if an author had hopes of becoming published were shocking to me. How many great works went unwritten as authors toiled under such strict guidelines about what they could and could not write?
I’m not unsympathetic to the issue of parents trying to decide what is and is not appropriate for their children to read. My own parents made it very clear to me when I was a small child that it was important to ask permission before reading or watching something that might be mature. And on the issue of whether or not sexually explicit materials belong in school libraries, I’ll remain silent.
Rather, my chief concern is that what begins as a conversation about what is and isn’t appropriate in school libraries typically doesn’t stay there. In our increasingly partisan times, the forces of political ideology seem hellbent on eliminating that which with they don’t agree.
Working our way back through the history of American literature, it’s easy to compile a laughable list of all the great works that have, at one time or another, been declared obscene. Most recently, Toni Morrison’s "Beloved" became the topic of discussion in the Virginia governor’s race. But the list hardly stops there. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, George Orwell’s “1984” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” are just a few of the other titles to run afoul of some citizens’ idea of decency.
If content censorship is our future, and not just something contained to stories of those living in 19th century Russia, who, dare I ask, deserves to be in charge of making such decisions? And where does it end? In our school libraries? Or will those conversations one day make their way to a local library near you?
One of the many reasons I’ve been an avid supporter of great literature for as long as I can remember is precisely because of its ability to challenge me, to inspire me and to provoke conversation about the stickiest topics imaginable.
It’s a terrible shame, then, to think that we may soon be entering a world where all it takes to stop a book from appearing at a local library is one person feeling challenged by it.