English 200: Literary Studies--Banned Books and Novel Ideas

Professor Elizabeth Burow-Flak

Every fall, the American Library Association celebrates Banned Books Week by issuing a list of books that have been banned or challenged in the U.S. in the past year. In a climate of few restrictions on speech, vast library systems such as the Library of Congress, constant access to digital information, and online booksellers with a massive inventory, it is difficult to permanently remove access to particular books, films, or other works of expression, as burning a book might have accomplished in previous centuries.

Yet annually in the U.S., people ban or challenge books in an effort to keep others from reading them: for example, removing them from libraries or recommended reading lists. To ban or challenge a book is the polar opposite to what we will practice in this class: that is, reading books critically and engaging in civil and informed debate about them, even if we or others find portions of them objectionable.  

In this class, we will study works that have been banned, challenged, or censored, or that analyze, contextualize, or portray some form of censorship. In particular, we will examine controversies around given works, consider why certain audiences esteem works as valuable or laudable, and why other audiences view those same works offensive, threatening, or harmful. We will also examine how writers and societies—our own, as well as others--respond to restrictions on expression.  

Because this is an introductory literature course, most of the works that we will study are novels and plays, which we will read closely with attention to literary criticism, form, and tradition. But we will also consider notable censorship controversies outside of imaginative literature, from the historic and international to the local and recent. Finally, we will consider the flow of information in our digital age and the extent to which it is accurate or profiled, as well as how our participation in digital media affects the quality and freedom of our expression. If possible, at least once this semester, we will see a play in live performance, as well as reading playscripts and seeing portions of dramatic texts on film.  

Potential works: Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates, Bertolt Brecht, Galileo, Lillian Hellman, The Children’s Hour, Christopher Chen, The Hundred Flowers Project, Shariar Mandanipour, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Alice Walker, The Color Purple, Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary, Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues

Assignments will include written papers, a mid-semester and a final exam, and regular participation in a class blog, wiki, or discussion board.