Banned books are among some of the best books in the world. After all, unpopular books aren’t worth the gasoline it takes to burn them, since they’ll soon lapse into obscurity on their own. And if a society or government feels so strongly about the subversive content of a book that they feel the only way to counteract it is to prevent anyone from ever reading it again–then I’d say that right there is a pretty compelling reason to read it.
Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about the practice of banning books in schools, or challenging their appropriateness for certain age groups. Every article I’ve read so far about Banned Books Week seems to be approaching it from this angle, as if that’s the most heinous form of book banning. It’s not. Banning a book from school just means that the people in charge of the school don’t like it and isn’t any more culturally damning then enforcing a school uniform. If our kids can still walk to the library and check out whatever they want then there isn’t any real damage being done. After all, some books aren’t suitable for children, and parents and teachers are simply exercising discretion by saying “No, you can’t read that until you’re older.”
Banned books are books that at some point in time, somewhere in the world, are unavailable at all. When they’re considered contraband, and possessing one is a crime, that is when you have legitimate censorship. Today we’re going to talk about notable examples of books well worth reading that have been outlawed at some point in time.
I don’t usually lead lists like this with a religious note, but there is no denying that the Bible is one of the most controversial books ever written. It is still restricted or outright banned in a number of countries–most notably North Korea where possession can result in a death sentence. In the 13th century translation of the bible into the English vernacular was forbidden, and any copies found would be burned. The invention of the printing press caused production to explode, putting an end to the effectiveness of book burnings in preventing the spread of forbidden literature.
Surely no single institution has banned as many books for as long of a period as the Roman Catholic Church. In 1600 they established the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) which was not abolished completely until 1966. This means that until as recently as fifty years ago, if you were a loyal Catholic you weren’t allowed to read the work of Francis Bacon, Victor Hugo, Jonathan Swift, or Alexandre Dumas. Most notable however, perhaps because it was one of the first times the church made their power to conduct censorship known, was the banning of Dialogues–the publication of Galieo’s findings regarding the validity of the heliocentric solar system originally developed by Nicolai Copernicus. Ironically, in 1835 Galileo’s work was removed from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum given that the church allowed a similar work to be published in 1822. Few other books have ever been extended this courtesy until the list was finally abolished.
Dystopia is arguably one of the most popular genres today, especially among young adults. But it’s anything but a new phenomena, as the great classics can attest to. In 1949 Orwell wrote his vision of the future he feared his country was heading towards–one of despotism, tyranny and complete loss of individual freedom. Phrases we associate easily with dystopian genre such as cold war, thought police, and big brother were invented by Orwell. Since restrictive governments who object to critism are the most likely to ban books it is no wonder that 1984 was outlawed in the Soviet Union as being hostile to communism. What comes as slightly more of a surprise is that it was nearly banned in both the UK and the US in the early 1960s.
This is an example of a book that probably a lot of people might think should be banned, regardless of their views on censorship in general. Hitler’s autobiography is a highly controversial volume banned by the Russian Federation, Austria, China, and Bavaria. But those who don’t read history are doomed to repeat it. Therefore, Mein Kampf should be being taught widely as an example of what not to do if you don’t want to grow up to be one of the most infamous villains the world has ever seen. It’s also a striking insight into Hitler’s thoughts, a fascinating study for would-be psychologists. And surely it can’t be any more dangerous than producing an entire TV show about criminal minds!
Ah, back to dystopia. Brave New World makes the list because it’s been banned in the Republic of Ireland, supposedly for sexual promiscuity. Odd, then, that modern romance novels are perfectly legal. It’s also illegal in India, for similar reasons. It’s one of the most controversial books today, but the reasons are more likely due to the portrait it paints of an oppressive society, and fear that bright young children will look at their world with a more critical eye if they’re allowed to read such enlightening material.
While the first amendment prevents the United States from banning anything, individual states can often do so, and there is nothing to prevent a community from pulling certain books from the shelves of their local schools and libraries. Among these cases of local censorship there is no book that’s been as hotly disputed as Mark Twain’s sequel to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Alternately banned for being racist and anti-racist, it’s time that America comes to terms with the fact that it is what it is, an adventure story. Not everything has a sinister ulterior motive, and what we find offensive now might be a tad bit overblown when looked at in a historical context.
Used to be banned in China, because of it anthropomorphized animals. The question one finds oneself asking is: why Alice? Why not the Wind in the Willows or Charlotte’s Web?
Oh yes, we’re going there. I’m ending with this example, because it’s a book that isn’t banned, but most people probably think it should be. Australia, in fact, is the only country in the world where it is technically illegal. However, criminal charges were once pressed against a teenager found possessing it in the UK, and there have been repeated calls for it to be banned in the US. Only the very foolish or the naive would openly purchase this book, or let it be known that they owned it.
And that is the note I want to close on. Far too often the very same people I see celebrating banned book week will decry and condemn books that they perceive as promoting violence, anarchy, and abuse. I have heard heated arguments for books to be censored from Amazon, or from Kickstarter, and indignant complaints that these arguments are not heard.
But to ban one book, however terrible and objectionable it might be, is to invite censorship on all literature everywhere. All the books listed above have one thing in common–they are all forbidden or have been forbidden, somewhere in the world. When we embrace the freedom to read as we choose it is an all or nothing deal. As a people we must accept the good with the bad, the serial killer’s memoirs alongside the pinnacle of literary achievement, the amateur’s nonsense alongside the work of genius. And, like with Huckleberry Finn and the Anarchist’s Cookbook, the good will float to the top, while the bad sinks to the bottom. Cultural expectations are a far stronger influence in what books gain in popularity then any laws or censorship.
So go forth and read. Read everything, and the more controversial the better. Support the rights of those in restricted countries to read freely, and help spread awareness of censorship today. Together we can change the world.
What are some of your favorite banned books?