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Leonard Hall was a man on a mission.
In 1985, he won his seat as superintendent of Bay County Florida schools as a "get-Christian-values-back-in-our-schools" candidate,1 and after two years of complaints about "filth" like I Am the Cheese he came up with a solution.
He came up with a three-tier system for categorizing books:
No vulgarity or sex.
A "sprinkling" of vulgarity.
An unacceptable level of coarseness and profanity.
Superintendent Hall removed books in category #3 from the curriculum. Kids could still find them on the shelves, but they couldn't read them for credit.
So, they called the books out as being unacceptable and then left them on the library shelves. I'll let Deane Bozeman, a member of the Bay County School board, confirm what you've already guessed:
“The only thing we succeeded in doing is making sure every child in Bay County reads the books we banned.”2
The ban that wasn't really a ban ended after a lawsuit and a raucous eight-hour public board meeting.
What’s the lesson here? Is it that banning books doesn’t work? Not exactly.
One book in Crusader Hall’s #3 category was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Because of course it was. If you're going to ban a book, then there are few better choices than a book about banning and burning books.
But it was Bradbury's fault. If he'd just kept his mouth shut back in 1979, Fahrenheit 451 would have never been not-quite-banned.
Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, a book about censorship. Heinlein's response to the Cold War and the Red Scare was fascist space marines. Bradbury's answer, which he published a few years earlier, was a book about a society that bans books and sends firefighters to burn them.
For years he said that the book was a response to McCarthy and Stalinism.3 In 2007, he said it was about his fear of television killing books.4 Bradbury loved interviews and I imagine he said the story was about many things. Good books are.
But there's no question that the Fahrenheit 451 is an indictment of censorship and banning ideas, so it makes perfect sense that its own publisher bowdlerized it for 13 years.
In 1967, Ballantine Books created a special edition for high schools. They made over 75 editorial changes.
They eliminated words like hell, damn, and abortion.
They changed a drunk man to a "sick" one.
They changed, and I can't believe I have to type this, a reference to cleaning out a human navel to cleaning out an ear.
They didn't tell Bradbury. They didn't document the changes or call it a new edition. They just made their own
damndarn version of Fahrenheit 451. In 1973, they stopped selling the "adult" version altogether.
In 1979, Bradbury found out. He was displeased. Publicly so. Ballantine restored the original text, and it’s been the only version available since.
So, If Bradbury hadn't complained, the crusading superintendent wouldn't have put the book in category #3. There’s your lesson.
But seriously, Bradbury's insistence that Ballantine restore his book changed the landscape for kid's books. In 1980, the American Library Association (ALA) looked into expurgation and censorship in school book clubs and found it everywhere. They made it clear to the clubs that they don't present awards for censored books and helped school librarians put pressure on publishers.
And no one ever censored or bowdlerized a book ever again.
Ha, just kidding.
This story came to mind when I saw Judd Legum's Popular Info this Monday. The headline was "How to ban 3600 books from school libraries," and the title isn't clickbait.