Banned Books Week is an annual awareness campaign that celebrates the freedom to read. It brings together librarians, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers in support of the freedom to seek and express ideas–even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
Banned Books Week 2012, September 30-October 6, marks the 30th anniversary of the campaign, yet the practice of banning books has been known for a long time. The Catholic Church first promulgated its Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1559. The Index was developed to protect the faithful from reading immoral books or works containing theological “errors.” And it wasn’t a trivial matter for authors to find their books there. Giordano Bruno, whose entire works were placed on the Index in 1600, was burned alive at the stake, and Galileo died under house arrest–their books were destroyed, too.
More recent incidents of book-burning and destruction were perpetrated by the Nazis in 1933. Books were also set on fire in China, as part of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and in Chile, after the military overthrew its elected government (1973).
There are a variety of reasons for which books have been challenged. Some are suppressed due to the perceived notion of obscenity–this can also apply to books about sexuality, race, drugs or social standing. Governments ban books which they consider to be threatening, embarrassing or critical. And some church leaders want to shelter their congregations from perceived immoral and profane ideas or situations. (On the other hand, religious materials–The Bible and other scriptures–have been banned by various governments, too.) Parents of young children are also frequently the source of challenges. Statistical data show that the most common initiators of book banning efforts are parents.
Many well-known and respected works have been challenged over the years. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was not allowed to be published in the U.S. until 1933, when Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that Joyce’s work was not pornographic. “[W]hilst in many places the effect of ‘Ulysses’ on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic [nauseating],” Woolsey wrote, “Nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”
Another landmark case involved “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence. A heavily censored edition of this book was published in America in 1928 and its expurgated edition was published in Britain in 1932. But then, in 1960, Penguin Books published the full unexpurgated edition of the book. This resulted in an obscenity trial that became a major public event in Britain. Various academic critics and experts were called as witnesses, and the verdict, delivered on November 2, 1960, was “not guilty.”
Among other books that have been challenged (many of which are now taught in classrooms) are Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” JD Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Yet the authors of these books were never threatened or killed–which is not the case for those who dare to challenge the values of Islamic extremists. Salman Rushdie, author of the “The Satanic Verses,” lived under fatwa (Islamic religious edict) for years–bounties were offered for his killing, and the book’s translators were attacked, some even murdered. Ayaan Hirsi, author of “Infidel” and “Nomad,” is living in hiding even now–her screenplay for Theo van Gogh’s movie “Submission” led to death threats, resulting in the director’s murder.
In America, books challenged in 2011 included The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (just as The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling was in previous years), “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (one of my personal favorites) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
And what about 2012? Recently, controversy has been raging over The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James. In fact, in May 2012, several county libraries in Maryland, Florida and Wisconsin decided to keep this book away from their shelves. Do I want to read it? No. Would I give it to a child? Surely not. Do I believe that nobody should read it? My answer is simple: think for yourself! Or as Voltaire put it long ago: “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.”