The surest way to force a book to be read is to ban it.

I must know. As a high school student, I found a list of the most banned books and made sure to read them. Call it teenage rebellion, but it was exciting to think that I was participating in something that rebelled against the authority of adults.

I decided to check out the books banned from my senior years of high school, and found that out of the top 10, not only had I read six of them, but I considered them my favorite books then and now. Banned books during those years that I continued to read into adulthood included The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum; “1984”, George Orwell; “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain; And the Sun Rises, by Ernest Hemingway; The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger.

Looking back, I now realize that from each of these books I gained insight into how to live a better life. From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I felt the wonder of life. From “1984” I heard a warning about how dictators can destroy personal freedom. “Howl” inspired me to write poems, and “The Catcher in the Rye” gave me the feeling that I was not alone as a teenager.

Texas and Florida have been in the news recently for attempts to ban books used in their public schools, but Pennsylvania ranks third among states with the most banned titles (457 in 11 districts, according to PEN America, an organization that brings together more than 7500 Writers which exists to support freedom of expression in art). In Texas, more than 800 books in 22 school districts have been banned in the past year, mostly on themes of racial history or sexual identity, according to the American PEN.

Why are books banned? According to the American Library Association, some are banned ostensibly to protect children from difficult ideas or inappropriate content. In other cases, books are banned because they challenge existing beliefs or contain sexually explicit material or offensive language.

Oftentimes, officials decide to ban books that they believe violate “community standards,” which is rather inconvenient and varies from state to state. What offends citizens in one state may not offend in another, thus creating separate but unequal geographic regions.

There is a somewhat blurred line between freedom of expression and laws governing any restrictions. But what are these borders and is there a general understanding of them in the country? Some argue that states have the right to set their own standards, but then what’s illegal in Florida is also illegal in Pennsylvania? Who decides what can and cannot be read in schools?

As a writer, I believe in the First Amendment to our Constitution, especially the part that says Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . .”

But as a citizen, I could argue that freedom of speech has some limitations, like not yelling “fire” in a crowded theater if there’s no fire. Another limitation is when there are calls for violence against others based on race, religion or political beliefs.

Great literature not only describes life, but often sheds light on injustice. I can’t read Orwell’s 1984 without seeing how the story applies to us, for example, in America today. From The Catcher in the Rye, I can understand what it’s like to be a young person in a culture that doesn’t recognize the special state of being an outsider.

Absolute freedom can lead to anarchy. Absolute control can lead to the tyranny of the few over the many. Think of Russian state television as an example of what happens with total control, and the new version of Twitter as what happens with little to no control. Somewhere in the middle between these two extremes must be a reasoned decision that protects freedom of expression as well as societal values ​​that is legally and morally appropriate.

John K. Morgan is a teacher and writer. His columns appear weekly on

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