Banned Books in Review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

More than 1,600 books across 32 states were banned during the 2021-2022 school year. In Idaho, 26 titles were banned across three school districts, underscoring a trend spearheaded largely by right-wing religious groups pushing for censorship of books that feature LGBTQ+ characters, as well as sexual and racial situations they deem inappropriate for children. 

In an attempt to shed light on this development, I have pledged to read all 26 books banned last year in Idaho and share with our readers what they are all about, why they were likely banned and what we are missing by promoting censorship of the written word. 

The author

American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer is perhaps best known for his debut novel Everything is Illuminated, released in 2002, but is slowly gaining more recognition for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close after it has been recognized as one of the most banned books in America during the last decade.

Safran Foer was born into a Jewish family in Washington, D.C. and was a self-described “flamboyant” and “sensitive” child who said he suffered, “something like a nervous breakdown” after a chemical accident in his classroom at the age of 8. As a result, Safran Foer always felt like he wanted to be “outside his own skin.”

Safran Foer took an introductory writing course with Joyce Carol Oates, who took an interest in his writing. 

Author Jonathan Safran Foer.

“My life really changed after that,” he said later.

After graduating from Princeton in 1999, Safran Foer briefly attended medical school before dropping out to pursue his writing career full time. To date, he has published four novels and three works of nonfiction.

The book

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is Safran Foer’s second novel, using the events of the 9/11 terrorist attack as the backdrop for the story. The protagonist is 8-year-old Oskar Schell, who learns how to deal with the death of his father in the attack on the World Trade Center. 

The novel follows multiple interconnected storylines, and is filled with odd additions that give it a surreal format both lauded and panned by critics.

Oskar’s dad owned a jewelry store and had a meeting at the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He subsequently died in the attacks, though his body was never recovered, and the book centers around Oskar’s peculiar way of dealing with his sudden grief.

While Oskar is extremely intelligent, he’s also clearly on the autistic spectrum and doesn’t process things like everyone else. His dad left a series of messages on the answering machine prior to the towers falling, adding guilt to Oskar’s grief because he didn’t pick up the final call right before the towers came down.

While rummaging through his dad’s things, Oskar comes across an envelope in his dad’s closet with a key inside of it. In an effort to feel close to his father again, Oskar embarks on a journey with the key, attempting to find the lock it fits.

Alongside Oskar’s story is a dual narrative about his grandparents, who tell their own tale through a series of letters sprinkled throughout the novel.

The dual storylines are at times brilliant, but can also be confusing and, dare I say, pretentious. What’s most powerful about this novel is the ability for Oskar to say and do whatever is on his mind without a filter, culminating in sections that are heartbreaking, hilarious, insightful and downright gut-wrenching at times.

Why it was banned

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has been banned in multiple school districts across America for most of its time in print. Reasons vary, but the consensus largely centers around several passages in the book that were “extremely vulgar detailing sexual acts.” Other reasons found online at several banned book sites are for the inclusion of “profanity, sex and descriptions of violence.”

To be honest, it was very difficult finding specific passages in the book which supported claims of “extremely vulgar” language and “sexual acts.” There is a scene where Oskar’s grandfather spoke about his experience with a prostitute. In another scene, Oskar referred to seeing a picture of “an African-American woman’s VJ,” meaning her genitalia. In another section, he refers to looking at Playboy magazines with his friends.

Oskar uses colorful language at times, but it seems to fall well short of “vulgar,” unless being read by someone who hasn’t interacted with another human being before.

One element that I picked up on, though, was Oskar referring to himself as an atheist, which might have offended the religious guardians of free thought that seem to dictate what’s appropriate for children to read in schools nowadays.

I was left scratching my head after reading this novel, unsure of why it has such a notorious reputation as a repeatedly banned book.

Final thoughts

There are books I’ve read which I would acknowledge aren’t suitable for children. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close isn’t one of them. It’s a smart, quirky novel with a few risque sections and a spirited vocabulary from the 8-year-old protagonist, but other than that, there is no reason this book should be banned from schools.

The National Coalition Against Censorship might have put it best when responding to those who believed Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close should be banned: “Removing a book with recognized literary and pedagogical merit simply because a few parents disapprove of it not only disserves the educational interests of students but also raises serious constitutional concerns.”

Stay tuned for future editions of the Reader where I review books banned in Idaho recently.

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