Stepping out of the cold and into Cochrane-Woods Library might not feel like an exercise of personal liberty. But it is. A liberal arts university library is like a wildlife reserve for challenged and challenging modes of thought and expression. At Cochrane-Woods, students and alumni are free to read books that some people would take away if they could.
That truth became clear on campus on September 16, 2011, Constitution Day. The library observed Constitution Day with an exhibit of banned books—works that, were it not for the First Amendment, may not be available to the patrons of any library in America.
On the first floor near the elevator stood a simple table with a sign hanging above it, reading only, “BANNED BOOKS”. The table brimmed with books that have faced bans in the U.S. and abroad.
As I Lay Dying, Invisible Man, Beloved, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ulysses, Slaughterhouse Five. The titles went on. Go Tell It on the Mountain, A Clockwork Orange, The Jungle, Naked Lunch. One could stay quite busy (and quite content) for years reading nothing but the banned books on this single table.
The display proved immediately popular, and the table’s selection quickly shrank. Looking for The Catcher in the Rye? Gone. Lolita? Sorry. Checked out. The Grapes of Wrath? Try again in a couple weeks. “The interest in these books really belies the notion that today’s students aren’t readers,” said University Librarian John Montag.
Montag said calls to ban books “come from both the left and the right” as groups take issue with certain books’ sexual content, explicit language, violence, religious viewpoint or political content.
And Assistant Professor of Library Science Lindsay Brownfield cautioned against the assumption that book-banning efforts are largely a thing of the past. “Some of the bans that put books on our display are quite recent.”
Montag pointed to what he called “one of the ironies” of the debates over controversial titles. He said the people who believe most firmly in the power of literature aren’t necessarily a book’s defenders. “The people opposing bans will often argue, ‘It’s just a book. What harm can it do?’ But a ban’s supporters see books and their ideas as extremely powerful—and dangerous.”