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Books are banned for any number of reasons. Whether the controversial content they contain has been found "offensive" on political, religious, sexual, or other grounds, they are removed from libraries, bookstores, and classrooms in an effort to keep the public from being harmed by ideas, information, or language that does not conform to societal norms. In America, those who champion the Constitution and The Bill of Rights consider book banning a form of censorship, arguing that its very nature directly contradicts the First Amendment right to free speech.
The History of Banned Books
In the past, banned books were routinely burned. Their authors were often unable to publish their work, and worst-case scenario, ostracized from society, jailed, exiled-and even threatened with death. Likewise, during certain periods of history and even today in places of extremist political or religious regimes, possessing banned books or other written material may be regarded as an act of treason or heresy, punishable by death, torture, prison, and other forms of retribution.
Perhaps the best-known case of recent state-sponsored censorship in its most extreme form was the 1989 fatwa issued by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie in response to his novel, "The Satanic Verses," which was deemed an abomination against Islam. While the death order against Rushdie has since been lifted, in July of 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, a 44-year-old an assistant professor of comparative culture at Tsukuba University who was translating the book into Japanese was murdered. Earlier that year, another translator, Ettore Capriolo, 61, was stabbed in his apartment in Milan. (Capriolo survived the attack.)
But book banning-and burning-is nothing new. In China, the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE) was ushered in with a massive book burning during which most of the original copies of the classic works of Confucious were destroyed. When the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) took power, Confucious came back into favor. His works were subsequently recreated by scholars who had memorized them in their entirety-which is likely the reason so many versions currently exist.
Nazi Book Burning
The most infamous book burning in the 20th century took place in the 1930s as the Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler, came to power in Germany. On May 10, 1933, university students burned more than 25,000 books in Berlin's Opera Square that did not align with Nazi ideals. College students from universities across Germany followed suit. Both public and university libraries were ransacked. The books taken were used to fuel huge bonfires that were often accompanied by marshal music and “fire oaths” denouncing anyone whose thoughts, lifestyle, or beliefs were deemed “un-German.” It was the beginning of a period of extreme state-sponsored censorship and cultural control.
The goal of the Nazis was to purify German literature by ridding it of foreign influences or anything that spoke against their belief in German racial superiority. Writings of intellectuals, especially those of Jewish origin, were targeted.
One American author whose works met the same fate was Helen Keller, a deaf/blind human rights activist and who was also a devout socialist. Her writing, as exemplified by the 1913 publication, "Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision," championed the disabled and advocated for pacifism, better conditions for industrial workers, and voting rights for women. Keller's collection of essays titled "How I Became a Socialist" (Wie ich Sozialistin wurde) was among the works the Nazis burned.
Quotes on Censorship
“You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.”-Helen Keller from her "Open Letter to German Students"
“Because all books are forbidden when a country turns to terror. The scaffolds on the corners, the list of things you may not read. These things always go together.”―Philippa Gregory from “The Queen's Fool”
“I hate it that Americans are taught to fear some books and some ideas as though they were diseases.”―Kurt Vonnegut
“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.”―Anaïs Nin from “The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Volume 4”
“If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all-except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.”―President John F. Kennedy
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”―Salman Rushdie
The Definitive Book on Book Burning
Ray Bradbury's 1953 dystopian novel "Fahrenheit 451" offers a chilling look at an American society in which books are outlawed and any found are incinerated. (The title refers to the temperature at which paper ignites.) Ironically, "Fahrenheit 451" has found itself on several banned books lists.
“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door… Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”-From "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury
The Book Banning Pendulum Swings Both Ways
Books that have a history of having been banned, even those now restored to the so-called canon of respectable reading, are still considered banned books from a historical perspective. By discussing the machinations behind the banning of such books in the context of the time and place in which they were banned, we gain insight into the rules and mores of the society responsible for the censorship.
Many books considered "tame" by today's standards-including Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and Jame's Joyce's "Ulysses"-were once hotly debated works of literature. On the flip side, classic books such as Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" have recently come under fire for cultural viewpoints and/or language that was accepted at the time of publication but is longer deemed socially or politically correct.
Even works by Dr. Seuss (a vocal anti-fascist) and acclaimed children's author Maurice Sendak, along with L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," have been banned or challenged at one time or another. Currently, in some conservative communities, there's a push to ban J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, which detractors claim are guilty of promoting "anti-Christian values and violence."
Keeping the Banned Book Discussion Alive
Launched in 1982, Banned Books Week, an annual end-of-September event sponsored by the American Library Association and Amnesty International, focuses on books that are currently being challenged as well as those that have been banned in the past and highlights the struggles of writers whose works fall outside some of society's norms. According to its organizers, this weeklong celebration of controversial reading "stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them."
As society evolves, so does the perception of what literature is deemed appropriate reading. Of course, just because a book has been banned or challenged in some parts of the United States doesn't mean the ban is nationwide. While Amnesty International has cited only a few writers from China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, and Saudi Arabia who have been persecuted for their writings, for those who consider reading a human right, it's important to keep abreast of incidents of book banning around the world.
- "Helen Keller Writes a Letter to Nazi Students Before They Burn Her Book: 'History Has Taught You Nothing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas'”. OpenSource. May 16, 2007
- Weisman, Steven R. "Japanese Translator of Rushdie Book Found Slain." The New York Times. July 13, 1991