Banned Books Week
Austin Taylor discusses Banned Books Week and the issues of literary censorship
Banned Books Week runs from the 27th of September to the 3rd of October. It is an annual event which aims to celebrate the “freedom to read”, and began in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges to the books being published in the US. Every year, Banned Books Week focuses on a theme; last year that theme was “Censorship is a dead end. Find your freedom to read!”. Of course, throughout history, literature has been banned on grounds ranging from political to religious, in contexts ranging from national to the school library. Is it right that some perhaps extreme or morally questionable literature is barred from our shelves?
Books that incite violence or promote extremism are historically prime candidates for censorship. The most infamous of these is, of course, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which has faced a complex relationship with the law and was generally thought pretty unpublishable in the post-war era. Indeed, in 2010, Hitler’s autobiography was once again banned in Russia for promoting extremism. There is an argument for the censorship of literature which, like Mein Kampf, so brazenly attempt to exacerbate societal and racial divisions, and promote extremism. Some freedoms must be given up for society to function and we must ask whether the freedom to read books like Mein Kampf is one of them.
Indeed, John Green’s 2005 Looking for Alaska was found to be “the most challenged book of 2015”
One of the main forms of book censorship in the USA is, of course, carried about by concerned parents and teachers. Indeed, John Green’s 2005 Looking for Alaska was found to be “the most challenged book of 2015” (i.e. it received the most requests to be removed from schools and libraries) by the American Library Association. Most of these challenges were for reasons including offensive language, sexually explicit scenes and the depiction of homosexuality. Whilst most of us would consider John Green to be fairly tame, it begs the question as to what our children should be allowed to read.
A Clockwork Orange — infamously removed from multiple school libraries in the US for ‘objectionable language’ — is a prime example of this very human principle in action.
The effectiveness of book censorship has, however, always been under question, with banning books being, naturally, the best way to make it a bestseller. A Clockwork Orange — infamously removed from multiple school libraries in the US for ‘objectionable language’ — is a prime example of this very human principle in action. Anthony Burgess, in fact, decried the fact that he was pretty much only famous for this novel, calling it a “jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks”. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is another very prominent example of this. It was heavily censored from its initial release in the 1920s, and, following its very public 1960 obscenity trial and subsequent significance in the 1960s sexual revolution, helped to ensure D.H. Lawrence’s wider popularity. It is the case of many banned books that their popularity has been ensured by their notoriety.
I believe, furthermore, that giving people the freedom to read widens their scope of experience and the range of their discourse. Indeed, Mein Kampf itself was republished in January 2016 by the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. Their edition includes scholarly annotations and a nuanced introduction, which serve to disarm the extreme rhetoric and inform how we engage with racist propaganda and repressive regimes. For children, perhaps reading about homosexuality or a novel from the point of view of another race or gender helps them to develop their ability to empathise with others; an ability so disturbingly lacking in current societal discourse.
Of course, the subject of censorship in literature is a complex one, but it is my belief that allowing ‘controversial’ and socially subversive books to be published helps to enrich our societal dialogue and reflect on how we view the world. It is more important that we continue to read, to empathise and to understand than any perceived protection we offer to society by brushing ‘objectional’ material under the rug.