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Banned books: 10 of the most-challenged books in America
America isn't immune to attempts to remove books from libraries and schools, here are ten frequent targets and why you ought to go check them out.
- Even in America, books are frequently challenged and removed from schools and public libraries.
- Every year, the American Library Association puts on Banned Books Week to draw attention to this fact.
- Some of the books they include on their list of most frequently challenged are some of the greatest, most beloved, and entertaining books there are.
Book censorship in the United States has a long and ignoble history. The Puritans burned books they disagreed with, Darwin was banned in Tennessee classrooms, and in 1992 41% of all attempts by censors to remove books from libraries had some measure of success. To help bring attention to this shameful phenomenon, the American Library Association puts on Banned Books Week every year to draw attention to some of the most frequently banned and challenged books in the United States.
Here, we have ten of the most frequently challenged books in the United States, why they are challenged, and why you ought to read them.
Harry Potter (series)
A copy of a Harry Potter book burns in a bonfire during a protest outside the Christ Community Church December 30, 2001 in Alamogordo, New Mexico. (Photo by Neil Jacobs/Getty Images)
Topping the list of the most frequently challenged books for the first decade of this century, the Harry Potter novels are among the most beloved works of children's literature of the last few decades.
Why are they challenged? Attempts to remove the books tend to invoke the book's use of magic to claim that they encourage witchcraft or bad behavior. These allegations also prevented J.K Rowling from getting a Presidential Medal of Freedom during the Bush years. Other attempts to keep the books off the shelves argue that the books are too scary for children.
Why should you read it? Not only are they fun books to read, but a study revealed that people who read the book are more empathetic towards stigmatized groups than those who do not read them are. They are frequently used to help encourage children to read more, and even adults will find the later books worth their time.
To Kill A Mockingbird
Shoppers read about a Chicago program involving the 40th anniversary edition of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel 'To Kill A Mockingbird' (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
Another challenged book which often appears in the top ten most challenged books list, To Kill A Mockingbird is a heavyweight contender for the title of The Great American Novel. Published during the civil rights movement, Harper Lee's masterpiece continues to inform discussion of racial issues today.
Why is it challenged? The book is challenged for its "offensive language," "racism," and being "unsuited" to the age group schools tend to offer it to. In 2016, the public schools of Accomack County, Virginia successfully removed the book from classrooms over the use of racist language.
Why should you read it? The book is a classic and shows us a side of American history most of us would like to pretend never happened in intimate detail. It explores themes of innocence, racial justice, hypocrisy, class, social norms, courage, and morality in a way few other novels can. It does this in a very readable style with unforgettable characters, including a young Truman Capote.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
Judy Blume has the honor of being the author with the most books on the frequently challenged list. This book, her third, focuses on a young girl named Margret who is struggling with issues of faith, family, and growing up. It was placed on Time's list of the top 100 English language novels of the last century.
Why is it challenged? The book deals frankly with Margret's religious issues and her concerns over menstruation. As such, it has been dubbed "sexual," "amoral," "anti-Christian," and "profane" by would-be censors.
Why should you read it? Judy Blume has a knack for approaching difficult subject matter in a way that young adult readers can fully appreciate without dumbing it down or glossing over unpleasant concepts. It is well written and addresses issues that are perpetually relevant.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huck Finn' fish on the river Mississippi, near the childhood home town of Mark Twain (1935 - 1910), Hannibal, Missouri. (Photo by George Pickow/Three Lions/Getty Images)
Another one of the leading contenders for the title of The Great American Novel, Huck Finn has found itself in the middle of controversy since the day it was published.
Why is it challenged? When it was first published, libraries refused to stock the book because of its crude humor and realist style. Twain himself recorded that "the Concord library has condemned Huck as 'trash and only suitable for the slums." Today, the chief complaint against the book is its frequent use of racial slurs and stereotypical depictions of several characters.Why should you read it? Huck Finn is, without a doubt, one of the greatest American novels ever written. It turns a critical eye on American culture, racism, and personal identity with results that are both scathing and often hilarious. It shows Mark Twain's brilliance at full tilt, and you can't really hope to understand American literature without reading it.
R.L. Stein's series of spooky children's stories is the second-best selling book series of all time. They are fun tales that never get too scary or serious, and purposely avoid instances of death, drugs, or depravity.
Why are they challenged? The supernatural elements of the stories and scary tone have gotten the books challenged by buzzkills ever since they came out. The controversy has begun to die off though; it fell from the 15th spot on the 1990s list to 94th for the early 2000s list.
Why should you read them? They are entertaining kids' books that can give a good fright without relying on anything too terrifying or offensive. The series is also an excellent tool for encouraging children to read.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Poet Maya Angelou reads a poem during a ceremony to present Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa the William J. Fulbright Prize for International Understanding November 21, 2008. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Maya Angelou's autobiographical coming of age story has captivated millions since it was first published in 1969. It is the first of a series of autobiographical books she wrote, and easily the most well-known. It is a gripping story of struggle and personal development that can inspire any reader.
Why is it challenged? The book is often called sexually explicit, includes references homosexuality, and includes the use of racist language.
Why should you read it? It is one of those rare biographies that also reads well as a piece of literature. It confronts issues of racism, sexual assault, illiteracy, personal identity, and growing up in a difficult environment with all the beauty of Angelou's prose.
Bridge to Terabithia
Katherine Patterson's classic story of two children who invent a magical kingdom to play in, Bridge to Terabithia has appeared on countless middle school reading lists since it was first published in 1977.
Why is it challenged? The bizarre list of reasons for challenges to the book includes offensive language, violence, Satanism, and the promotion of secular humanism.
Why should you read it? It is an excellent children's book, it won the 1978 Newbery Medal, that brilliantly deals with issues of death, grief, and friendship in a way that is neither patronizing nor sanitized.
Brave New World
English novelist Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel of hedonism, genetic engineering, conformity, and mass consumption has been knocked off countless times since it was first published in 1931. Based on what he thought the America of the 1920's would decay into, it remains a haunting vision of things that may still come to pass.
Why is it challenged? It has been most frequently challenged for its depiction of drug use and sex. The school district of Miller, Missouri banned the book for making promiscuous sex "look like fun."
Why should you read it? The book shows us how what we love can come to control us if misused and investigates the dark side of genetic engineering and modern technology. It forces the reader to confront questions of what utopia actually is and at what price we are willing to accept a world where everybody really is happy all the time.
It’s Perfectly Normal
Author Robie Harris' children's book on sex, puberty, and relationships was perhaps doomed to appear on the most frequently challenged list. It is an extremely detailed book that covers a wide variety of topics, much to the irritation of the puritanical.
Why is it challenged? The book is quite detailed, and many challenges relate to it being rated as appropriate for children as young as ten. Its use of cartoon illustrations has also drawn ire, and it has occasionally been called "pornographic" as a result. It also references the existence of homosexuality.
Why should it be read? Given the rather pathetic state of sex education in this country, the book's honest and detailed explanations offer a needed alternative to the abstinence-only programs which tend to be inaccurate and unable to achieve their goals.
Of Mice and Men
US novelist John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
John Steinbeck's 1937 book about migrant farm workers in California predates his other classic, The Grapes of Wrath, by two years. It is technically a novella, as it weighs in at a mere 30,000 words.
Why is it challenged? The book's ability to present profound ideas in an accessible manner makes it a staple of many high school reading lists. It has been scorned and banned for profanity, using the Lord's name in vain, sexual themes, racism, being depressing, and being anti-business.
Why should you read it? If you want a work of classic literature that is also easy to understand, you can't do much better than this. It hits many of the major themes in Steinbeck's later work inside of two hours reading time. It is also an excellent work onto itself that is worth the time of any reader.
- These are the best books for every age - Big Think ›
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.
Debating is cognitively taxing but also important for the health of a democracy—provided it's face-to-face.
- New research at Yale identifies the brain regions that are affected when you're in disagreeable conversations.
- Talking with someone you agree with harmonizes brain regions and is less energetically taxing.
- The research involves face-to-face dialogues, not conversations on social media.
There are two kinds of identity politics. One is good. The other, very bad. | Jonathan Haidt<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6f0e52833af5d35adab591bb92d79f8e"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/l-_yIhW9Ias?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Unsurprisingly, harmonious synchronization of brain states occurred when volunteers agreed, similar to <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322764116_Creativity_and_Flow_in_Surgery_Music_and_Cooking_An_Interview_with_Neuroscientist_Charles_Limb" target="_blank">group flow</a>—the coordination of brain waves that hip-hop and jazz musicians (among others) experience when performing together. Coordination exceeds the social, into the neurological. As the team writes, "talking during agreement was characterized by increased activity in a social and attention network including right supramarginal gyrus, bilateral frontal eye-fields, and left frontopolar regions."</p><p>This contrasts with argumentative behavior, in which "the frontoparietal system including bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left supramarginal gyrus, angular gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus showed increased activity while talking during disagreement."</p><p>Senior author Joy Hirsch notes that our brain is essentially a social processing network. The evolutionary success of humans is thanks to our ability to coordinate. Dissonance is exhausting. Overall, <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210113090938.htm" target="_blank">she says</a>, "it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree," comparing arguments to a symphony orchestra playing different music. </p><p>As the team notes, language, visual, and social systems are all dynamically intertwined inside of our brain. For most of history, yelling at one another in comment sections was impossible. Arguments had to occur the old-fashioned way: while staring at the source of your discontent. </p>
People of the "left-wing" side yell at a Trump supporter during a "Demand Free Speech" rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images<p>Leading us to an interesting question: do the same brain regions fire when you're screaming with your fingers on your Facebook feed? Given the lack of visual feedback from the person on the other side of the argument, likely not—as it is unlikely that many people would argue in the same manner when face-to-face with a person on the other side of a debate. We are generally more civil in real life than on a screen.</p><p>The researchers point out that seeing faces causes complex neurological reactions that must be interpreted in real-time. For example, gazing into someone's eyes requires higher-order processing that must be dealt with during the moment. Your brain coordinates to make sense of the words being spoken <em>and</em> pantomimes being witnessed. This combination of verbal and visual processes are "generally associated with high-level cognitive and linguistic functions."</p><p>While arguing is more exhausting, it also sharpens your senses—when a person is present, at least. Debating is a healthy function of society. Arguments force you to consider other viewpoints and potentially come to different conclusions. As with physical exercise, which makes you stronger even though it's energetically taxing, disagreement propels societies forward.</p>In this study, every participant was forced to <em>listen</em> to the other person. As this research was focused on live interactions, it adds to the literature of cognitive processing during live interactions and offers insights into the cognitive tax of anger. Even anger is a net positive when it forces both sides to think through their thoughts and feelings on a matter. As social animals, we need that tension in our lives in order to grow. Yelling into the void of a comments section? Not so helpful. <p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
In a joint briefing at the 101st American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting, NASA and NOAA revealed 2020's scorching climate data.