The Portland Phoenix

Leftovers: Reading between the lines

Second of two parts.

Last week’s column tiptoed into the notion of Banned Books Week, asking what, if any, impact it has for us in Maine. The question came to mind after visiting an independent bookstore in Atlanta that had a huge display of banned titles at the entrance. Each banished book had a little card propped up next to it that gave the date of when it was banned, the reasoning behind it, and by which school district or organization. And this collection, the owner told me, was just a drop in the bucket.

There was a table with “Books Currently Banned Around the World,” and a long shelf with a big sign that said, “May 10, 1933.” That infamous day was when the Nazi party had just come into power in Germany. Faculty and students in 34 university towns across the country burned over 25,000 books. The works of Jewish authors like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud went up in flames alongside blacklisted American authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller, while students gave the Nazi salute.

My head was spinning when I asked the owner why he thought I hadn’t seen or heard anything about Banned Books Week (held September 18 – 24) at home. Yes, there was some static over “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” but nothing that got us fired up to run to the library or a book store to show support for freedom of reading and to reinforce protection from censorship.

“Maine, huh?” he said with a southern drawl. “Well, that’s because overall, you guys haven’t felt any pain. At least not yet.”

This guy wasn’t just talking about J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” for being (or not being) on a required high school summer reading list. He was also referring to LGBTQIA+ rights  and accessible, legal women’s health care. It was apparent he saw Portland, Maine as a place that hasn’t fought those battles because we haven’t had to. But, his emphasis on the word “yet” nags at me still.

Over the past few days, there has been some mention and recognition in local media. A column emphasizing our first amendment rights in one paper. An opinion piece about basic liberties, in another. There was a look at what the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick did with a banned book countdown, identifying which books were causing the loudest uproar. The point is, just knowing about Banned Books Week is key. But what we do to take it beyond awareness is crucial.

One of my favorite expressions goes something like, “It’s easy for me to tell you how to do your job, but…” and then I’ll say my piece. So, why isn’t the issue of censorship more of a big deal to social studies teachers at the middle school level? Why isn’t it an elective at the high school level? Why were some of the previously banned books acceptable for years and years, and now they aren’t?

Our main character in the previously mentioned classic, “Catcher in the Rye” is a sixteen-year old rebel with a foul mouth and a propensity for violence. He’s got substance abuse problems and runs away to New York City. Almost all teenagers can relate to Holden’s angst in some fashion, making the book a beautiful written teaching moment. But, from the time it was published in 1951 up until 1982, it was one of the most censored books in US schools and libraries. And one of my favorites.

My new bookstore owner friend in Atlanta followed up his statement about “not feeling the pain, yet,” with another one that’s equally as disturbing and thought provoking.

“It’s all about control,” he said. “Yeah, some stuff is inappropriate for young kids, or even some adults. But not because it’s bad, or wrong, or anything. But because maybe they can’t understand it yet. What this really is about is people not wanting others to read something they don’t agree with. It’s all about control.”

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at

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