At school we are given numerous books to study, but I didn't realise just how many have actually been banned. It is not surprising to find such books on the reading lists of university but what about about those for secondary school?
I've already mentioned William Golding's Lord of the Flies, but another book I studied for my GCSEs was Of Mice and Men by the American author John Steinbeck. Published in 1937, it is during the heart of The Great Depression, when unemployment rose as high as 25% in the US.
With figures like that, jobs were hard to come by, but for protagonist, George Milton, he had an extra challenge to overcome. George's best friend is the ironically named Lennie Small, a big man, with super strength. This should come in handy when applying for manual labour, but unfortunately, Lennie has a mental disability. At a time when such things were not understood, Lennie's innocent mistakes cause severe consequences. Whenever George gets them a job, Lennie will end up doing something that gets them fired, or worse, sets them on the run.
Of Mice and Men begins just after such an incident. Lennie loves to stroke soft things, which lead him to being falsely accused of rape. George and Lennie are now on the run, and looking for work.
They find it at a Californian ranch, where right from the off, there is intense foreboding. The boss's son, Curley is a jealous semi-professional boxer, and his wife is a vain flirt.
The novella explores many themes, including the American Dream, hope, and friendship, all of which come to a tragic end.
Although required reading in many schools, it has equally been the target of censorship, and listed as one of the American Library Association's 'Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century'. It has been banned in many US schools and libraries for reasons such as being 'vulgar', using profanities, 'condoning racial slurs', and 'promoting euthanasia'.
In my opinion, however, these accusations are either untrue or justifiable. It's something called realism. In the 1930s racism was a fact of life. Terms that are unacceptable today, such as 'nigger' were in common use back then. The language may be racist, but that does not mean the book is. It merely tells things as it is. If children do not learn about the history of racism, that means they cannot understand why it took place, or learn from the mistakes of the past.
As for 'promoting euthanasia', that is an interesting topic considering the current debates about the right to die. George's actions are clearly wrong and against the law. What he does is partly out of mercy, but also for his own benefit. Steinbeck makes no social comment about the ending of the book, but just because he does not state he disapproves, does not automatically me he agrees with it. Silence from the author should not be criticised, but applauded because it allows the audience to make up their own mind.
While Of Mice and Men received a lot of criticism from its home country, the book has been widely applauded in the UK as essential reading in secondary school. However, circumstances changed earlier this year, when the government decided to take Of Mice and Men off the curriculum. That doesn't mean children aren't allowed to read it, just that it won't be taught in schools.
The reason was not because of vulgarity, racism, or bad language though. Of Mice and Men was removed for one simple reason. It is American. The argument was that British children should be reading more literature from their own country. One can never read too much English literature, but to me, it seems stupid to restrict student's learning to English novels. How are they mean to gain a wider understanding of other cultures and world history, if they don't get to read books from other countries?