Breaking the Rules: The Best of Banned Books, Consolidated by Caroline

I am lucky enough to have many friends that enjoy reading as much as I do, and because their taste, though similarly discerning, differs from mine in certain aspects, I thought introducing some guest posters would be an excellent way to diversify the literary content on the blog. Today’s guest post comes from one of my best friends from college, and fellow voracious reader, Caroline Abushakra. Caroline has conquered far more classics than I have, particularly of the once-banned variety {she’s a #rebel}, so today I am pleased to announce her list of the Best in Banned Books. Without further ado:

1. In Cold Blood –Truman Capote.

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Written in 1966, this true crime novel recounts the aftermath of a grisly murder in a quiet town western Kansas. It became the subject of controversy due to Capote’s depictions of sex and violence and his use of profanity. While the book’s subject matter certainly is graphic and not for squeamish audiences, anyone who sees it as a mere tale of a shocking, gory murder is entirely missing the point. What’s most interesting about In Cold Blood is Capote’s close relationship with his subjects that borders on, or perhaps even crosses, the boundaries of journalistic ethics.

2. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison.

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This sociopolitical epic, which was banned from high school reading lists around the country, spans the life of an unnamed first-person narrator and explores the impacts of 20th century political movements such as Marxism and black nationalism (think Malcolm X and the Black Panthers). More broadly, it is a meditation on individual identity and agency, or the lack of it. Ellison may be a bit too overt with symbolism and imagery at times, but the way that the chapters read almost like a collection of short stories that stand alone almost as well as they work together makes for enjoyable reading about social topics that remain relevant to this day.

3. The Color Purple – Alice Walker.

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I was initially put off by the stylized grammar, spelling, and punctuation in this epistolary novel (it’s written as a series of letter, like one of my favorites, Where’d You Go Bernadette). However, I quickly acclimated to the writing style and found myself enjoying the feeling of closeness to the action that it provided. Banned for “offensive language,” sexually explicit scenes and homosexual themes, The Color Purple tells the story of how Celie, a woman born into abject poverty and an abusive home in the deeply segregated South, overcomes these circumstances and develops into a strong woman despite a deck that’s completely stacked against her. As crushing as it is inspiring, The Color Purple’s feminist themes particularly resonated with me as a young female reader.

4. American Pyscho – Bret Easton Ellis

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It’s pretty easy to understand why this one would upset the morality police, as Ellis’s protagonist Patrick Bateman redefines the term “anti-hero” with his smug attitude, obsession with wealth and superficial appearances, and, of course, he’s a serial killer. You might have heard of this one from your boyfriend, brother, or guy friends, who have probably at least seen the movie version if they haven’t read the book. Bateman’s bloodlust, while deplorable, is somehow less deadly than the Ellis’s biting tone as he satirizes life of materialistic yuppies in New York in the 1980’s. For anyone who loves a good period piece, the references to 80’s designers, restaurants, music (loooots of Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads), and all manner of pop culture and trends will entertain as much as Bateman’s actions horrify.

5. A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving

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This book’s status as a banned book is due to Irving’s depiction of the titular Owen Meany as a Christ-like figure, whose life and friendship with narrator Johnny Wheelwright in a small New England town in the 1950’s and 60’s provides the backdrop for Irving’s musings on religion, faith, relationships, baseball, boarding school, television, Thomas Hardy, Episcopalians, and the Vietnam War. Don’t let the religious aspect of this book scare you off; as a person who doesn’t practice any organized religion, I found this book to be one of the most touching, haunting, and genuinely funny books I’ve read in years. Irving’s sarcastic tone had me laughing out loud on a train full of people on more than one occasion. He also fleshes out even minor characters, who often disappear from the narrative for awhile only to return later, where you feel as if you’re greeting an old friend. The labyrinthine narrative plumbs various aspects of Owen and Johnny’s relationships with each other and with others and the fated nature of their intertwining lives culminates in one of the most utterly crushing yet oddly satisfying endings I’ve ever read.

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