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ONU course studies the history and influence of banned books

Classic, contested books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fahrenheit 451 are being analyzed this semester by Ohio Northern University 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.

“We 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),” explains Douglas Dowland, Ph.D., associate professor of English, in the course syllabus. “We 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.”


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

Dowland’s decision to create a banned books course was inspired by the recent acceleration. The American Library Association (AMA) reports 1,269 demands to censure library books and resources in 2022, the majority of them “by or about LGBTQA+ persons and Black, Indigenous, and people of color.” Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, which was the most challenged book in ’22 according to the AMA, is one that ONU 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 “ironically because it would take my comfortable hobby of reading and purposely make it uncomfortable.” Leaving one’s 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.

“One thing that doesn't pop into my mind when I hear the term ‘banned books’ is the term ‘classics,’” Hamill said. “Criticism 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.”

Hamill draws a parallel between book banning and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Hammer of Justice” speech given at ONU just prior to his assassination. "…It's always a great tragedy when a society seeks to live in monologue rather than in dialogue,” King had said. “A good book is something that makes me feel something,” Hamill noted. “Just 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?”

“We’re never just reading,” Dowland said. “We’re always reading in a context and for a purpose” such as knowledge acquisition. A book, he noted, speaks to values, but doesn’t always represent them, particularly as times and people change throughout their lives. The same person might react to John Steinbeck’s 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’s “Animal Farm” is the book she’s most excited to read in this course. “As 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,” she said.

Along with reflecting more on literature’s evolving nature, how it’s 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.

“We have to think about the public function of literature,” said Dowland. “I want them to stand up in front of a jury of either their peers or some public officials… 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.”

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. “People are going to come in with preconceived notions that they think are very set and intransigent,” he said. Civil discourse will create space for those stances and room to respectfully interrogate them. “Can we disagree without turning somebody into a villain?” Likewise for books, he wonders.

“We have to think about the public function of literature… the freedom to read… and the luxury of being exposed to all these ideas,” said Dowland. What is worth reading, what should or shouldn’t be available to read, who makes those determinations, and why, are what some ONU students are now exploring.