Banned Books: A complicated history

This is a guest blog post from the Decentralised Public Library, an Arweave initiative.

This week we are proud to support Canada’s Freedom to Read Week! This event is a celebration of Canada’s constitutional commitment to intellectual freedom, and a reminder to us all of the importance of freedom to publish and to disseminate knowledge. This blog post will explore some of the challenges to these freedoms, many of which continue to threaten our literature even today.

Why are books banned?

Reasons for attempted book bans are incredibly diverse, with some of the most common being: the inclusion of controversial religious or moral themes, obscenity, and politics.

However, moral outrage is not reserved for low-budget, risqué, or underground publications. Some of the most beloved and well-respected books of the 20th century have been banned at some stage.

Obscenity

Obscenity laws in the UK and USA have traditionally been heavily involved in censorship attempts and successes in the 19th, 20th, and even 21st centuries.

The now-classic novel ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce was the subject of various legal wrangling when it was first published, typically under obscenity laws. Although Joyce’s novel has some words and phrases that would make many wince even today (including the remarkable descriptor ‘scrotumtightening sea’!), the British Library comments that any affront caused by the novel’s language was compounded by “…its bawdily irreverent treatment of the British royal family and its sacrilegious attitude to the Roman Catholic Church…”.

Simply put, it ruffled some religious and establishment feathers, as well as prudish ones too! In fact, when Ulysses was originally serialised in the journal The Little Review, its instalments were promptly and dramatically ceased when the two joint editors were successfully prosecuted under obscenity laws in the UK. Though some censors justified their actions as being for the ‘protection of women’, the irony that the two prosecuted editors were women themselves, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, may have escaped them.

Happily, Joyce’s Ulysses is now officially public domain in many countries! This means that the work is out of copyright restriction, and so it can be modified, re-used, and adapted without royalties to the original author (or their estate). This means that you can legitimately download a copy for freetoday! Note: if you’re in the EU you may have trouble accessing Project Gutenberg (a fabulous resource for free ebooks) without a VPN, so try this link instead.

Following a very similar journey, the novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D. H. Lawrence, was formally banned from its publication in 1928 until 1960, when a High Court ruling found the publishers not guilty of violating UK obscenity laws on the grounds that the work was of ‘literary merit’. Again, happily, Lady Chatterley’s lover is also officially public domain in the UK. Download your own version of this once-banned book yourself right here!

Religion

When published books offend religious sensibilities, the consequences can be dire. The reaction to publication of the magic realism novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ by Salman Rushdie has resulted in multiple serious injuries and even deaths. The book was wildly controversial, as many Muslims believed the text was severely blasphemous. Shortly after publication, a fatwa (‘death sentence’) was declared on the author, resulting in Rushdie and his family living in hiding for many months. In the many protests that followed, some turned deadly, including in Pakistan where five people were killed and 80 wounded. Rushdie later apologised for the distress caused by his book, but this was outright rejected, with Ayatollah Khomeini’s office stating, “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and become the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell.”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book was banned in a raft of nations, including Rushdie’s home country India, and in Pakistan.

Surprisingly, children’s books are commonly also the target of banning attempts on religious grounds, commonly from parents seemingly attempting to protect their children from outside influence and ideas. Take the explosively popular Harry Potter series, which was one of the most challenged books or series according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom in 2001, 2002, and 2003 for inclusions of ‘occult/satanic’ themes. I suspect many who have read Harry Potter will readily dismiss these accusations, given the strong themes of friendship, familial love, and loyalty found throughout the series (and the lack of satanism, of course). Ironically, JK Rowling herself has confirmed that the Potter series has strong Christian themes, which she discusses at length in this piece, where she confirms that she is in fact Christian herself, and attends church regularly.

Politics

For centuries, literature has been incredibly vulnerable to censorship on political grounds. Sometimes a book can be heavily challenged or banned simply because the author is believed to have specific political leanings, even if the book in question doesn’t appear to contain any mention of politics. For instance, after its publication in 1903 ‘Call of the Wild’ by Jack London was banned by authoritarian governments in Italy (1929), Yugoslavia (1929), and in Germany (it was publicly burned in 1933), supposedly due to London’s personal belief in socialism. Perhaps conversely, others have suggested that the book’s narrative promotes an idealistic individualism and bravery, themes which can often contribute to authoritarian regimes’ desire to restrict access. Call of the Wild is now in the public domain, so feel free to download a copy right here! Similarly, John Steinbeck’s classic ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1937) has fielded challenges due to Steinbeck’s perceived ‘anti-business attitude’, and ‘questionable patriotism’.

However, book bans and other attempts to restrict people’s freedom to read continue to this day. If we want to preserve these liberties we must consistently defend against attempts to silence controversial works. Prior to the publication of Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’ in 2018, President Trump’s own lawyers sent a cease and desist letteron the grounds of libel to the publisher insisting that the book not be published at all. The publisher has labelled this action unconstitutional.

Freedom to read in prisons

As you might expect, compared to those of us walking free, prisoners have dramatically reduced access to books and other media, despite their potential rehabilitative impact. Prisons are equipped with libraries, the quality of which depends on the prison in question and its security level of course. However, practical obstacles often impinge prisoners’ ability to access said libraries, including availability of staff to accompany their visit. As you might expect, prison libraries do not hold the full range that a typical library would, with certain topics deliberately withheld for the prison’s stability or for prisoners’ safety. However, restrictions of freedom to read inside prisons are not always entirely reasonable.

For some time, prisoners in Britain were banned from purchasing or receiving books at all, as part of a crackdown on prisoners’ ‘perks and privileges’. In 2014, this rule was found to be unlawful by the High Court and prisoners were permitted to purchase books from four specific retailers, who would send the volumes to prisons directly.

Furthermore, prisoners in the USA have to deal with unintuitive and restrictive rules on exactly what reading material they’re allowed to access, which can vary wildly from state to state. For instance, certain ‘self-help’ or ‘personal development’ books have been outright banned from prisons in Utah, Texas, and Pennsylvania. ‘Body Language 101’ by David Lamber, ‘The Elements of Persuasion’ by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman, and ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ by Robert Greene have all been banned from US prisons out of fear they may teach prisoners to become better manipulators or liars. Additionally, many programming and IT educational texts are disallowed from American prisons, including ‘C+ for Dummies’, with authorities citing the possibility that these could cause ‘a security threat to the prison’, This is perhaps particularly baffling, given that California prisons have been teaching prisoners to code, rather than denying them the chance to learn!

Freedom to read in schools

When reading the number of book bans and attempts it’s immediately obvious that a vast majority of such challenges in the USA at least come from parents petitioning local school districts in attempts to either remove a book from the curriculum, or from the school’s library.

One example of a heavily challenged book in schools is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee (1960), which was the 7th most challenged book in 2017. Many of these challenges come from parents petitioning school districts to remove the book from reading lists and school libraries. Mockingbird has been consistently controversial since its publication in 1960, and despite being a well-loved classic and Pulitzer Prize winner, remains heavily challenged to this day. In recent decades challenges have often cited the fact that Mockingbird includes the use of racial slurs, despite the overall message of the book being deliberately anti-racist.

So, as we head into this week, we should take some inspiration from the Freedom to Read Foundation, and seize this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to intellectual freedom. Join our mission to preserve knowledge now and try our permanent archiving tool!

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