Bourke's Banned Bookshelf: Lives like skyscrapers

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer is No. 55 on the American Library Association's 100 most frequently banned and challenged books from 2010-19.

Cover of 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' by Jonathan Safran Foer
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer is No. 55 on the American Library Association's 100 most frequently banned and challenged books from 2010-19.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

My quest to read banned and challenged books in preparation for Banned Books Week started on my own shelves.

Theresa Bourke headshot

Sept. 18-24 is Banned Books Week, and I will be doing my small part to bring awareness to the initiative by reading books that fall into that category throughout September.

I started with the American Library Association’s list of the Top 100 most frequently banned and challenged books from 2010-2019. The association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has been documenting attempts to ban books in libraries and schools since 1990 and compiles annual lists by reviewing both public and confidential censorship reports it receives.

A book is considered challenged when someone makes a request to remove it from a school, curriculum or library. It is considered banned when any of those attempts are successful.

After reading through the 2010-19 list, I found I already had 13 of the titles sitting on my shelves at home, some read and some unread. A few more titles were ones I’ve read but don’t own.


All of them saddened me, knowing they’re all books some person might not be able to read if taken out of the only school or library accessible to them.

‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

I started my journey with No. 55 on the list, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2006 book “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” Movie buffs might recognize the title from the 2011 on-screen version starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.

Mostly narrated by 9-year-old Oskar Schell, the novel follows the boy in the wake of his dad’s death in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Oskar’s dad owned a jewelry store but had a meeting at the World Trade Center that fateful morning. His body was never recovered from the rubble, so he was presumed dead and memorialized at a gravesite with an empty casket.

Adding to Oskar’s indescribable pain is a sense of guilt.

He returned home from school that day before his mom could make her way to the apartment from work. On the answering machine, he found several messages from his dad, calling to courageously say he was OK, even though screams and cries were evident in the background.

When the phone rang again just before the tower fell, Oskar was too petrified to answer it. That would be the last time he heard his dad’s voice, and he wouldn’t let his mom or grandma know about the messages.

The grief and guilt drive him to spend time among his dad’s things — clothes, books and other trinkets. One day, Oskar finds a key in dad’s closet. It’s in an envelope with the word “Black” written on it. Nothing else.

In an effort to feel close to his dad again, Oskar embarks on a journey to find the corresponding lock. He looks up every person in New York City with the last name Black and endeavors to meet them all and ask them about the key and about his dad. It’s an adventure like no other that takes Oskar to every corner of the huge city.


Sprinkled in among Oskar’s narratives is another story — that of his grandparents, who tell their own tale through a series of letters to their son and grandson. Becoming mute in his adult life, Oskar’s grandfather resorts to writing as his primary form of communication. His collection of daybooks serve as his voice, each page bearing a different phrase that he has used throughout the day.

The appearance of those books is sampled in the novel, with some pages only containing one sentence of the story.

Pictures adorn some of the pages as well, with photographs of things Oskar has seen bringing the story to life.

This book tugged at the heartstrings and inspired my own thoughts about life and what I want out of it. I think it conveys a realistic portrayal of loss and the unimaginable measures some will go to combat grief.

Extremely lewd and incredibly coarse?

In 2015, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was removed the 11th grade honors English curriculum at Mattoon High School in Illinois after parent complaints about passages that were vulgar and detailed sexual acts.

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Just two months later it was removed from the required reading list for the 10th grade honors English class in a Canfield, Ohio high school.

Parents in Polk County, Florida tried to get the book removed from the schools’ libraries as recently as this year, complaining of “pornographic” content that was “harmful to children.”

It wasn’t until after I finished the book that I looked up the reasons for its bans and challenges. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t even recall the specific scenes that were called into question. I had to scour the web to find the controversial passages. I don’t think I found everything that was called into question, but as I read the search results, I was reminded of a passage where Oskar’s grandfather spoke about soliciting a prostitute and another where Oskar went into a woman’s house and saw a picture on the wall of “an African-American woman’s VJ.” There was another where he and his friends spoke about looking at Playboy magazines.


Is that appropriate content for teenagers to be reading about and discussing? Who’s to say? Are those passages serving as discussion topics in the class? Or are kids glossing over some of them while engrossed in the story like I was? I can’t answer those questions, and I’d be willing to bet most of those who complained about the book can’t either.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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