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Analyzing Banned Books: Juniata English Course Digs into Dirty Books

(Posted December 6, 2011)

Mark Hochberg, professor of English

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- "Dirty Books" sounds like it should be painted onto a small, inconspicuous sign and hung above the section of your local bookstore where only the brave and the shameless browse. That's not what the Juniata College English department thought, however. Introducing "Dirty Books:" a new course offered this fall semester.

Mark Hochberg, professor of English, is teaching the provocative class for its first run this semester. His syllabus does not skirt around the topic: "An examination of works of literature that have been labeled obscene . . . the course looks at why and how serious writers deploy scandalous and offensive elements in their work."

But how does a book become classified as obscene, anyway? And why are only books banned, and not movies or even TV shows? The answer is time. "When books were the primary form of entertainment, when a family would gather 'round the fire and Mother or Father would read books aloud to the children, then the subject matter of books was censored," Hochberg explains.

With the advent of TV and movies came the rating system we associate with the term, "R-rated." And now, as the Internet becomes the most popular media available, the rating system for TV and movies has become less strict. "When a media becomes less popular, it doesn't have as many in its primary audience, so it's not as selective," he adds.

The motive behind banning media content, in books, specifically, is the potential influence of the media itself. "Often, it's for political reasons; it's presenting a point of view that is objectionable," Hochberg says. He points out that what is seen as "objectionable" today may seem tame for the readers of tomorrow.

"There is always the chance that people will be offended, but, then again, the course title gave fair warning that we aren't talking about Harry Potter."
Marck Hochberg, professor of English

"A book that is 'dirty' involves shocking people: breaking taboos, and we don't have many taboos left about sexuality," Hochberg says. "Today's taboo subjects involve political correctness and diversity. We have to be as careful about the words we use concerning issues like race, gender, and disability as the Victorians were talking about sex," Hochberg explains.

Hochberg and the members of Juniata's English department faculty were trying to meet a curricular need when they dreamt up the course. "We thought we'd be serving a purpose if we offered more writing-based courses, but particularly ones of broader interest for students other than English majors," he explains.

The class reading list is as colorful as you might imagine. From Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," from Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" to John Cleland's "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure," (also known as "Fanny Hill") the course is teeming with diverse and provocative material.

For Hochberg, picking the reading list meant following a strict criteria. "picking books that had been banned, then trying to get some kind of range in terms of not all contemporary or 20th century, but things that continue to be readable and interesting," he says. He also aimed to balance the gender of authors to aid students in analyzing how gender affects the discussion of sexuality.


Hochberg also will explore the relationship between cultural values and aesthetic techniques in literature. So prose, style, symbolism, and even narrative voice all play a role in the "how" of the story, not the "what."

To put it simply: how the author dishes the dirt (or "dirty" parts) is a reflection of the cultural values at the time of the work's composition.

No matter how the authors go about literary technique, the nitty-gritty will be examined in full detail. "Discussing some of the books will require pretty explicit descriptions," warns Hochberg. "There is always the chance that people will be offended, but, then again, the course title gave fair warning that we aren't talking about Harry Potter."

Written by Ellen Santa Maria

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.