Why Ban a Book?
This week is banned book week,
which celebrates books that have been protested and essentially “kicked out” of libraries around America.
The ire of readers and censors tends to be roused by certain types of books. Book bans aren’t usually unilateral. They often happen at the level of an individual school or library.
Censuring Morality and Politics
Many banned books are geared toward children. Their subject matter tends to raise questions of morality and suitability. Are these the lessons we want to impart to our children? Do we want to talk to them about racism, drugs, or other thorny topics?
In other cases, books are banned because their content is considered obscene. This most often happens with pornography. Books depicting graphic brutality and violence can also be banned. Books with a particular political lean may also catch the eye of the government. They may be censured in order to quell dissent. Some books might be considered insulting to persons of a particular religious faith and so be banned.
Black bars were a thing before TV.
Still other books are banned for seemingly little to no reason. But all of this asks the larger question: Why bother banning a book? It often seems to backfire. Banned books often pique the interest of a larger audience than if they had just been allowed to collect dust. People who have never heard of the book become interested precisely because it’s taboo.
Why Ban a Book?
So why bother banning a book?
The answer lies in the historical importance of books. In days of yore, literature was often the most effective way of communicating new ideas—whether it was Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Copernicus’s treatise on the heliocentric universe, or Martin Luther’s 95 theses. Beginning in the 1400s, printed material became more widely available. And, as they had for hundreds of years, these written materials contained ideas.
Book burning was an effective method of censorship. Burning could destroy all copies of a book. The work would cease to exist. Scribes would no longer be able to produce new copies. As printing technology evolved, it became more difficult to control the number of copies. Burning was still the best method. Now, rather than destroying a single manuscript, censors needed to destroy hundreds or thousands of copies. They might need individual citizens to be complicit.
Pictured: Dangerous ideas. They’re hot.
Hardly a New Invention
Even in the age of manuscripts, books contained ideas considered objectionable, either by religious or governmental authorities.
The printing press also facilitated the expansion of education, which had previously been the sole domain of the elite who entered monasteries or attended universities. There was a point when Europe’s most powerful secular leader couldn’t read. Charlemagne had great respect for education and scholars, but he himself was illiterate. Fast-forward to Renaissance Italy and many, many more people learned to read. That meant they were communicating with each other through the written word, disseminating ideas. It became more difficult to police this network of literate persons as it grew. Censors had more trouble “protecting” people from “dangerous” ideas.
The Problem of Ideas
Conflicts of opinion were almost inevitable as more people became readers. Readers might reasonably object to some ideas. Individuals currying favor with those in power might try to suppress ideas that seemed to threaten the status quo. For example, pamphlets about the merits of rebellion against an “unjust king” might be seen to threaten the ruling elite. Similarly, Galileo and Copernicus challenged the authority of the Church with their writings, undermining centuries of doctrine with new knowledge. It’s easy to understand that the Church saw this as a threat to its own power. The “incorrect” doctrine would damage the Church’s reputation.
Notions of Progress and Problems
The same holds true today. We might object to the inclusion of particular book in our local library collection because we find its content objectionable. People will argue for freedom of both press and speech when considering a ban of a book with “progressive” ideals. Others argue against censorship for books that seem to have problematic notions about race or homosexuality in them. Take, for example, the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its gratuitous use of the word “nigger.” Those against banning it would argue about its historical importance as classic American literature. Those for the ban would argue it perpetuates harmful stereotypes and also uses inappropriate, problematic language.
Another example might be the decision of the CEO of Canadian bookstore chain Chapters/Indigo to ban Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler from store shelves. The reason is the book is easily construed as Nazi propaganda. Allowing its sale permits “dangerous” ideas to be circulated. Others would argue the book is of historical importance in understanding World War II and the Nazi regime. The CEO’s own subjectivity plays into this: She’s Jewish. Given what the Nazi regime carried out against Jews in Europe, it makes sense she’d have a strong reaction to a staple of Nazi propaganda.
The Subjective Stance
So why ban a book? Because we’re creatures of our own subjective opinions about what we believe is right and wrong. What one person writes in a book may give us cause to clutch our pearls—no matter which side of an issue we’re on.