The History of Banning Books
Banning books is a pretty big deal. People tend to think of a book ban as an impediment to free speech, and many pooh-pooh those who support book bans as too prudish or otherwise prescriptive. If you don’t like a book, simply don’t read it. Others, specifically those advocating for a book ban, feel that some books present dangerous ideas. This is especially true when those books are aimed at or made available to vulnerable populations, such as children.
But why do we get so up in arms when the subject of book banning comes up? After all, plenty of movies are banned in various countries around the world, and we hardly ever hear a peep about that.
An Ancient Practice
The answer is book banning has a long and very political history. The earliest incidences involved making written material illegible—often burning it so that no copies existed. If the work no longer existed, no one could read it. This practice goes back to at least 700 BCE. It happened in many cultures and societies: the Qin dynasty in ancient China burned books and scholars. The ancient Romans also burned manuscripts, including the famous Library of Alexandria.
The Early Modern Era
The printing press made bookmaking easier in the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result, the number of book burnings and bannings increased. The Catholic Church issued its first Index of prohibited books during the Renaissance. Printed material that presented ideas disagreeable to political leaders or religious leaders often caused problems. Martin Luther got in a lot of trouble over his 95 Theses, and Galileo Galilei wrote about the heliocentric universe and was put under house arrest as a result.
Banning books was often politically motivated, especially during the Renaissance. If a ruler found something unflattering or contrary to their ideas, they could prohibit the work in order to “protect” the population from “harmful” or “misleading” ideas.
Things began to change a bit when books turned more to fiction. Authors often used fiction to costume critiques of society and culture, as well as individual rulers, which could lead to bans on their work or even imprisonment. Fiction continued to evolve, however. In some cases, bans shifted to ideas of immorality presented in works of the imagination. Censors focused on “dangerous” or “immoral” ideas and subjects, cracking down on works that appeared to promote such immorality.
Literacy and Education as Social Danger
As more people learned to read, authorities became more concerned with morality. An example: Some suggested women shouldn’t read romance novels, because they were unable to separate reality from fiction. Women, they argued, couldn’t tell the difference. Jane Austen parodied the attitude in her satirical Northanger Abbey, in which the protagonist enjoys reading novels and is constantly under the impression that every event in her life is “exactly like a novel.”
When we hear about banning books today, this is what leaps to mind: a book being “banned” on the grounds of immorality. We think about bans of Harry Potter for promoting witchcraft to small children. Of course, a number of books are still banned for political reasons. For example, a how-to manual on suicide caused serious uproar in France in the 1980s. More recently, New Zealand and Australia banned an instructional on euthanasia. In these cases, lawmakers and politicians may deem the dissemination of such information harmful to the population. There are others who argue information should be accessible. In cases of suicide or euthanasia, access to such information is important because it promotes safe and proper practice. Of course, there are moral and ethical debates surrounding these topics, including concern about the morality of suicide and the legality of euthanasia.
The Power of the Written Word
What this boils down to is the use of power to promote certain beliefs and ideals. A person may request a ban on a book because they believe it promotes Satanism or witchcraft, or because it portrays or glorifies what they believe are harmful life choices. Governments may ban books that contain controversial subject material. But even that’s an effort to promote particular ideals. Those who advocate for freedom of the press are concerned about censorship—but don’t always support complete freedom. They might object to censorship in one case, but not in another, such as when someone wishes to publish something we ourselves consider controversial or wrong.
In short, banning a book has always and will always be a political act.