Banned Books Week 2016: The Legacy of Censorship

The banning of books is an alarmingly flexible tool that can be employed to stamp out debate on the key social issues of the day.

September 28, 2016

At Wigtown Book Festival, former Home Secretary Kenneth Baker introduced his new book, On the Burning of Books which spoke to the legacy of book burning throughout the age, whether fuelled by political, religious, moral or other motivations. It was a fascinating reminder of the lengths gone to, to expunge a book from the collective history, visit pain on the author or leave a majority opinion unchallenged.

During Banned Books Week, this discussion on the most visceral manner by which to prevent a book being read and shared cast the ongoing challenge to undermine censorship in a new light. It is too easy to say that the world is a freer place because book bonfires, the kind seen in 30s & 40s Germany, are a thing of the past, an image resigned to the history books. But we cannot let book burning be the threshold we hold out for before demanding action to address censorship, because once we look deeper we see a far more complex picture.

The banning of books is the less visible tool available to the censor, and as a result, is harder to track and measure. The banning of books leave no smoke plume or trail of ashes; it is an empty library shelf, it is piles of unopened boxes in a publisher’s office, it is an uncracked spine. Over the years iconic books have fallen foul of attempts to ban their sale or place within libraries. This includes To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and Beloved by Toni Morrison to name just a few. These are classic texts that have been deemed pornographic, ‘too radical’, anti-state (For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway was banned in Turkey for “spreading propaganda unfavorable to the state”), or even more cryptically banned because they conflicted with “community values”.

Brought by states, religious bodies or more likely parents, the banning of books in schools is a blunt tool to shield young minds from complex and challenging ideas, fostering an atmosphere of intellectual timidity. In the words of Grace Barry, a member of book club, 451 degrees at Lane Tech in Chicago who opposed the censorship of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: “Books that are banned are often the most important to read. The fact that people ban them implies that there is something to hide from society, which begs the question–what’s being hidden from us?”

This act of hiding comes with no debate, discussion or reason, it is a swift silent removal that leaves schools, libraries and classrooms poorer as a result. Censorship undermines the very freedom of expression that enables society to champion the diverse and vibrant voices of its citizens. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the protections for free expression highlights the right of individuals to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media” and banning books limit the ability of individuals to undertake any such work to seek or obtain information when it may, in fact, be hidden from view.

The banning of books is an alarmingly flexible tool that can be employed to stamp out debate on the key social issues of the day. According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, nine out of ten most challenged books in the US last year addressed issues of diversity, including most notably LGBT and transgendered youth, as well as issues surrounding religion. But as books are key vehicles to encourage debate and dialogue on these challenging issues, without the books to spark these discussions, how can we be sure communities around the world are able to share ideas and challenge stereotypes and prejudices?

So while the sky may be clear of smoke, we cannot assume we have defeated the great censorious forces at work around the world. The work to ban books continues and without challenging the basis of each case and debating the need for free expression in schools, we will lose more than we imagine, with no way of knowing how much we have lost.