Project Proposal: Banned Books

My research question is still a work in progress, as is expected, but for now I at least have a start in the direction I’d like to be headed. For now, I intend to study the readership patterns of banned books, specifically the fluctuations in reading habits before and after a book was banned, because I wish to discover how banning books affects readers (does the readership of a banned book increase after a book is banned, etc) in order to help explain the major beliefs of society. I know this is still a bit rough, but is at least a starting point.

I’ve left my research question a bit broad, as I am still working on finding more information on books that were banned due to dialect use. I would also, of course, need to narrow my research down to a specific book and time period, but I’m not quite there yet. What lead me to this current research question was, of course, my interest in the censorship of books but also a comment cited in an article about the publication history of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain, in response to the bans and criticism of his work, responds, “‘This will sell us another five thousand copies for sure!’ Some accounts quote him as saying ‘twenty-five thousand copies.’” If banning books is supposed to decrease readership of the work, why would it increase and what affect does this have on readers and society as a whole?

I did more research on the concept of banning books, and discovered a portion of the ALA website that focuses on banned and challenged books. According to the site, “books usually are challenged with the best intentions—to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information…Often challenges are motivated by a desire to protect children from ‘inappropriate’ sexual content or ‘offensive’ language.” If this is the case, why have these books become so popular in our society, seen as being classic works, The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird among them. Many of these works have been made into movies, republished, etc. There is even a whole week committed to banned books. So what really makes them popular? Is it in fact the stories or perhaps the fact that they were banned or challenged?

The research portion of this is where I’m stuck. I’d really like to focus on the language aspect of books, focusing on censorship due to dialect use rather than a taboo word, but I haven’t had much luck. Here’s some background I do have on the topic, though, and why I’ve become interested in the language aspect of censorship. For a paper last year, I studied African American English and how it’s used in Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus. Many thought/think that because the author is a Southern, white man writing in an AAE dialect that the work must be racist. However, after researching his history, that doesn’t seem to be the case but appears to be, what some say, a sort of ethnography of African American folk tales and the dialect at the time. Before my research, I had never heard of Uncle Remus, but rather the character Briar Rabbit (a name that was altered from the original Bre’r). I had never read the book, but had heard the stories (like the Tar Baby story, or the whole Disney Splash Mountain amusement ride). I’m curious to see if the censorship of this book and the discrimination it apparently conveys affects the dialect as a whole, and solidifies the preference for a standard form of English, I’ve just had trouble finding the relevant research. Perhaps my topic is too specific as of now, because I’m approaching it with a specific goal in mind. I may just need to broaden my question in order to make an interesting discovery.

Anyways, once I narrow down my topic, my intent is to choose one book and research its history. How many people read it before it became controversial, and how many afterwards? If applicable, I’d like to use the What Middletown Read website, or something like it, to collect data on readership. I’d also like to find some articles that are more relevant to the topic of banned books and language use (other than  taboo words), but this has proven difficult thus far. The ALA website has been helpful in giving me a general overview of the topic of banned and challenged books, but I know I need to delve much further into the topic.

The one question I do have now is: which topic seems more interesting to you, the reader? Would you be more interested in hearing about the topic of banned books and the increased readership afterwards or rather banned books and the relationship to the English language (of course, these topics are very basic as of now)? The latter is more interesting to me, but as we’ve discussed in class, it’s also important to keep the interest of the reader in mind.

Below is a temporary timeline, as it will most likely change as I begin to narrow down my topic and find relevant resources.

March 15-20: Work on narrowing down my topic and finding relevant resources

March 20: Blog Post 7-critique of one of my sources

March 20-26: Continue working on argument of the paper, collecting necessary data, etc

March 27: Individual conference

March 27-April 5: Work on rough draft, incorporating quantitative evidence and other resources

April 5: Finish and edit rough draft

April 6: Email rough draft to partner by midnight

April 8: workshop Essay 3

April 24: Final draft due by midnight

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4 thoughts on “Project Proposal: Banned Books

  1. I agree! I feel that this could uncover patterns that would stand aside from the data. Maybe there was a new topic that was once considered socially acceptable but now it was too risque to be the norm. Excited to see this come to life!

  2. I think that this is a really cool topic. Banned books are interesting because I think they reflect insecurities in our society. Or at least they highlight points of contention, which are always of interest. That said, I think you should pursue the latter topic as well, but it would also be neat if you could incorporate reading patterns as well. It seems like the reading patterns themselves could be used (almost as quantitative data) to affirm the conjectures you make about influences to the English language. Surely what we read/are not allowed to read changes the way we uses/relate to our language. Cool topic!

  3. This topic has lots of potential! I think the trick will be finding the primary material you need to explore readership. Also, you’ll need to narrow your topic–and to expand it. By that I mean that you may want to narrow down to one book, but explore readership more broadly, considering not only “ordinary” readers (if you can find records of their reading–maybe the RED will help) but also reviewers. At the same time, by broadening the focus beyond censorship or banning to readers’ responses to dialect in the book, you may find more materials and also have an interesting story to tell!

    Depending on what author/book you choose to focus on, there are a variety of resources to help you find reviews and reader responses. First, some really popular works have volumes of criticism dedicated to them that include reviews that appeared at the time of the book’s publication. Second, a lot of historical periodicals are easily searched for reviews or mentions of books you’re interested in. I’m happy to help you find these, as are librarians.

    Once you’ve identified reviews, we can do a little content analysis about how the reviewers “talked” about the issues of language, dialect, etc. This will be relatively easy if we can get all the text of all the reviews into a “corpus” that’s searchable by keyword. (Easier than it sounds.)

    So, get your topic focused a little more tightly, and then we’ll figure out what resources will help you answer your questions. It’s a really interesting research project; I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

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