According to the Banned Books website:
Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
You can link to their website to get a list of the most frequently challenged books, and in that pursuit, you might be surprised at how many of the books challenged are considered classics: Huckleberry Finn. Harry Potter. To Kill a Mockingbird. Brave New World. The Bible, for freak's sake. And those are a very, very few of the books challenged each year.
As a reader and as a writer, I passionately believe in the power of words. In the power of ideas. In the power of persuasion. But even more than in those things, I believe in the power of the human mind and heart to learn and grow, to distinguish between those things that edify our society and those things that destroy it. I believe that sometimes we need a mirror held up in front of us--shoved in front of us, sometimes--so we are forced to look at our ugliness and pettiness and wrongness, in hopes that one day those things might change. I believe we need fantasy and friendship, challenge and comfort, and sometimes we need a sharp kick in the pants.
All of these things can be found in books. Words and ideas are powerful things, and we have to trust ourselves and our societies to explore all of our horizons, all of the possibilities we can devise, all of the myriad beautiful worlds our amazing brains create. Sometimes an individual or a family will guide their younger generations toward or away from certain roads, and, though I may not agree with the limitations they place upon themselves, I will fight for their right to make those decisions, just as I would fight the power of those families or governments to make those decisions for me and mine.
Perhaps no book has been challenged more often or more deeply than Lolita, Vladimir Nabakov's 1958 classic. A couple of years ago, I was challenged to read this book (which I'd not read before and thoroughly misunderstood), and I wrote a review of it for Fictionista Workshop. It was an eyeopener. While I cannot say that I will ever like or understand the actions of an unrepentant pedophile, Lolita has great value not only in it's beautiful prose, but in its calculating gaze at a society which to this day misunderstands both the twisted motivations of Humbert Humbert (the protagonist), and the betrayed innocence of his child victim. Have you ever heard of a young seductress being called a "Lolita", and had sympathy for the poor man she seduced? That's the story Humbert Humbert told, and the general populace apparently sympathyzes with him still.
Do you think Lolita would tell the same story?
In honor of Banned Books Month, I chose to review Lolita, perhaps the ultimate banned book. In speaking to people about the story, I found that many had heard of the book, or at least the author (courtesy of The Police, who referenced "... that book by Nabakov" in "Don't Stand So Close To Me"), but it had been read by only few and with good reason. I've come to refer to this as "The best book I've ever despised."
Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, an immigrant to the United States, who develops a passion for the twelve-year-old daughter of his landlady. He is a long time observer of "nymphets" (a word Nabakov coined and which has stuck with us), but has never before been bold enough to actually physically molest a child, though his mind has been very active. The child, Dolores Haze, is childishly attracted to her mother's handsome lodger; so is the mother, who appears to be blissfully unaware that her charms are not what keep Humbert in her home. Eventually, she makes her attraction clear and gives Humbert an ultimatum. In order to stay close to the child, Humbert marries the mother. Fortune smiles on him (and abandons Lolita) when Mrs. Haze is killed in a freak automobile accident immediately after finding Humbert's diary and perceiving his intentions toward her daughter. Seeing his chance, Humbert collects Lolita from her summer camp and they embark on a two year, cross-country journey during which he repeatedly molests Lolita, telling himself that they are a couple. Eventually, he loses the girl to another pedophile, this time one who uses her for pornography. Three years later, Humbert finally finds her, married, pregnant, and desperately poor. She refuses his request to come away with him; Humbert then pursues and kills the man for whom he was abandoned.
Technically, Lolita, is a lovely book. Nabakov is truly an artist with his adopted language, combining vivid vocabulary with allusion to both classical and contemporary ideas and works. He weaves many stories within stories, creating characters that linger in one's mind long after the book is over. That is wonderfully evocative, and makes it clear why this novel stands the test of time and is still a "living" book. Paradoxically, that is also a negative.
Humbert is one of the vilest characters that I have ever come upon in any novel. He is an avowed pedophile, and absolutely irredeemable. Though he gives lip service to shame, calling himself variously a "monster", "murderer", "despicable", "brutal", these are more than balanced by his assertions that he is just following historical precedent, that twelve is a marriageable age elsewhere... that she wanted it, even as he relates in an offhand manner that she cried herself to sleep every night, and notes, after yet another molestation, that "her grave grey eyes (were) more vacant than ever-for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation."
Humbert bills himself as Lolita's 'dream man', but does not notice her silence when he does so. He justifies his perversion by reminiscing about a his own "lost love" at age thirteen, theorizing that his attraction to young girls comes because he was not able to consummate his 'love' for that girl. He even goes so far as to consider himself a candidate for sainthood when he considers keeping his Lolita after her "nymphet" stage ends, impregnating her, and then perhaps having a third generation of Haze "women" with which to dally. Though some critics point out that the initial rape came when Lolita made the first move, I find that judgment specious at best. The book is written in first person and just judging by the way he changes his stories about himself and his motivations (at first saying he's "attractive", later "gorgeous", and finally a "dream man") it is clear to me that he is the ultimate unreliable narrator. If we cannot believe what he says about himself, how can we believe what he relates of Lolita's actions?
Written in 1953-54, Lolita was deemed "too shocking" by four American publishing houses before being quietly published in Paris in 1955. American publishers came around by 1958, when the book was a fairly big success worldwide. Lolita has spent many of the intervening years between then and now on various 'banned book' lists. I cannot condone censorship, and so do not support a general ban; however, this book is definitely not for everyone. Surprisingly, it's not because of "smut". Nabakov himself jeers at those who picked up his book expecting a lurid read, saying:
In modern times the term 'pornography' connotes mediocrity, commercialism...certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be replaced by simple sexual stimulation... thus...action has to be limited to the copulation of cliches. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to... logical bridges of simplest design, brief expositions and explanations, which the reader will probably skip...Sexual scenes...must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations...therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.
Sound familiar, fan fiction or romance novel readers? This is just not true of Lolita. Incidents are couched in "acceptable" terms, and decline in description as the novel progresses, though it is very clear that the molestation continues unabated.
The true horror of Lolita is the peek inside the mind of an unrepentant pedophile, and the resultant realization of how easily his perversion was satisfied and nurtured in society. As a mother, this book haunts me. As a reader/writer, I am awed by Nabakov's mastery of his craft.
At the end of the day, my mother's heart wins. It aches for Lolita and cheers Humbert's death.
Now, go read a banned book.
(and DON'T Google image "Lolita". EVER. There are some sick people out there *smh*