Four 葫芦影业 students sitting at a table, each reading a book, with a stack of banned books in front of them.

Classic, contested books such as Lady Chatterley鈥檚 Lover and Fahrenheit 451 are being analyzed this semester by 葫芦影业 honors students. The course is focusing on how and why such works have been challenged or banned in the U.S. and England, their literary value, and how they reflect and influence civics and politics.

鈥淲e will quickly discover that virtually every book that is considered a classic now was once (or still is) banned. (This is a paradox that we will have to negotiate together),鈥 explains Douglas Dowland, Ph.D., associate professor of English, in the course syllabus. 鈥淲e will also discover that books which address contemporary issues are as frequently challenged as classic texts, which will lead us to consider how literature continues to be a source of personal discovery with political ramifications.鈥

Book banning has happened for centuries. According to Harvard University鈥檚 Graduate School of Education, the first book ban in this country is considered to be Thomas Morton鈥檚 New English Canaan, published in 1637; Puritan government leaders in Quincy, Mass., deemed it heretical. 鈥淭he Bible and works by Shakespeare are among those that have been banned over the past two thousand years,鈥 the school鈥檚 website notes. Such censorship has ebbed and flowed, and been instigated by political factions off all sorts.

Dowland鈥檚 decision to create a banned books course was inspired by the recent acceleration. The American Library Association (ALA) reports 1,269 demands to censure library books and resources in 2022, the majority of them 鈥渂y or about LGBTQA+ persons and Black, Indigenous, and people of color.鈥 Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, which was the most challenged book in 鈥22 according to the ALA, is one that 葫芦影业 students will read.

The topic clearly intrigues students, given that the course is full.

Abigail Hamill, a freshman from Wapakoneta, said she enrolled in the course 鈥渋ronically because it would take my comfortable hobby of reading and purposely make it uncomfortable.鈥 Leaving one鈥檚 comfort zone in order to learn and grow is something Hamill regularly embraces. She is also hoping the course will help sharpen her communication skills in preparation for law school and a career as an attorney.

鈥淥ne thing that doesn't pop into my mind when I hear the term 鈥榖anned books鈥 is the term 鈥榗lassics,鈥欌 Hamill said. 鈥淐riticism of any art or written work is valid. Interpretation is left with the one who consumes the media. However, disgracing such esteemed literature so no one has access to it strikes a nerve in me where I am not angry nor rejoiced about the situation, just left curious as to why.鈥

Hamill draws a parallel between book banning and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.鈥檚 鈥淗ammer of Justice鈥 speech given at 葫芦影业 just prior to his assassination. "鈥t's always a great tragedy when a society seeks to live in monologue rather than in dialogue,鈥 King had said. 鈥淎 good book is something that makes me feel something,鈥 Hamill noted. 鈥淛ust because a book makes me angry doesn't mean it cannot provide a different feeling to someone else that is positive. Who am I to deprive others of the experiences a book can give?鈥

鈥淲e鈥檙e never just reading,鈥 Dowland said. 鈥淲e鈥檙e always reading in a context and for a purpose鈥 such as knowledge acquisition. A book, he noted, speaks to values, but doesn鈥檛 always represent them, particularly as times and people change throughout their lives. The same person might react to John Steinbeck鈥檚 Of Mice and Men differently as a 50-year-old than as a 20-year old.

Hamill referenced this possibility of evolving perspectives when noting that George Orwell鈥檚 鈥淎nimal Farm鈥 is the book she鈥檚 most excited to read in this course. 鈥淎s a political science major, this book interests me because of the different interpretations from different groups on the meaning of the book. This will also be a reread for me and I am fascinated to see how my opinions changed, stayed the same, or if there's anything I did not pick up on the first time reading the book,鈥 she said.

Along with reflecting more on literature鈥檚 evolving nature, how it鈥檚 interpreted, and its public function, Dowland has added a civic component to the course: each student will be required to experience the process of trying to get a book banned or unbanned.

鈥淲e have to think about the public function of literature,鈥 said Dowland. 鈥淚 want them to stand up in front of a jury of either their peers or some public officials鈥 and I want them to be able to articulate their values. I wonder sometimes how many opportunities they have to stand up and authentically present themselves, warts and all. I want them to have that moment.鈥

Dowland, who once brought a hunk of Limburger cheese to class focusing on disgust so that students could have a spirited dialogue fueled by the sensory experience, anticipates students will offer conflicting views during the banned books classes. 鈥淧eople are going to come in with preconceived notions that they think are very set and intransigent,鈥 he said. Civil discourse will create space for those stances and room to respectfully interrogate them. 鈥淐an we disagree without turning somebody into a villain?鈥 Likewise for books, he wonders.

鈥淲e have to think about the public function of literature鈥 the freedom to read鈥 and the luxury of being exposed to all these ideas,鈥 said Dowland. What is worth reading, what should or shouldn鈥檛 be available to read, who makes those determinations, and why, are what some 葫芦影业 students are now exploring.