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A History of Book Banning

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

It's possible to burn a book but impossible to burn the ideas expressed in it.

It's possible to burn a book but impossible to burn the ideas expressed in it.

Censorship of Thought

For centuries, governments and individuals have suppressed the distribution of certain books because they find the ideas in them offensive.

Authoritarian governments ban books because they want a monopoly on knowledge to control what their citizens think about—can't have them developing ideas about freedom and independent thought.

Individuals and small groups seek to ban books that challenge their own belief systems. Perhaps because they have doubts themselves?

Either way, banning books and the knowledge they contain is a sign of an unhealthy society.

China Then and Now

As far back as 221 BCE, governing regimes have tried to suppress doctrines contrary to their own. That early example was when the emerging Han dynasty ordered the burning down of an entire library because the knowledge contained in it threatened its control.

The Chinese government is still banning books. The authoritarian leadership doesn't tolerate books it considers having a corrupting influence on the country's population.

In late 2020, a nationwide campaign began to purge school libraries of books deemed “inappropriate.” Individual titles were not singled out for destruction, but a general directive to librarians and teachers was issued.

It instructed them to get rid of works “that damage the unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory; books that upset society’s order and damage societal stability; books that violate the Party’s guidelines and policies, smear or defame the Party, the country’s leaders and heroes.” That's a wide-ranging order that can be interpreted to mean more or less anything.

Casualties include the perennial favourites of censors who don't want the people to realize they are being duped by their leadership, such as George Orwell's Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, get similar treatment.

Books about Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are also getting the chop on the grounds they might fill the heads of the citizens with notions that they might not be living in a socialist paradise.

Banning Religion

While the government of Xi Jinping busies itself with cleansing the country of religious texts, faith groups have also been guilty of widespread book banning.

Leading the parade here has been the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Gelasius I (papacy 482-486 CE) started things off, but the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of 1559 was a major step in church censorship.

The invention of the printing press 100 years earlier meant that publishers could produce texts that challenged the orthodoxy of Rome. Such seditious writings were obviously destined for the bonfire, which only made the copies that escaped the flames more popular.

But the Roman Catholic Church went even further, banning versions of the Bible that were translated into local languages. Here's just one example of how that went down, told to us by Bernard Starr, Professor Emeritus, City University of New York: In 1536, “William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English. According to Tyndale, the Church forbid owning or reading the Bible to control and restrict the teachings and to enhance their own power and importance.”

Image that, killing a man by fire for translating your own church's core text. Goodness, the peasants might even notice the word “Pope” is not mentioned in the Bible—not even once.

What other subversive ideas might be hidden in the text? Best to ban the thing, put the purveyors of radical thoughts to death, and leave it up to the priests to tell you what's in the book and what to think.

William Tyndale is strangled by his executioner prior to being burned at the stake.

William Tyndale is strangled by his executioner prior to being burned at the stake.

Book Banning in America

Pen America champions “the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.” In 2022, it reported:

“Today, books in the U.S. are under profound attack. They are disappearing from library shelves, being challenged in droves, being decreed off limits by school boards, legislators, and prison authorities. And everywhere, it is the books that have long fought for a place on the shelf that are being targeted. Books by authors of color, by LGBTQ+ authors, by women. Books about racism, sexuality, gender, history.”

This despite a celebrated case that was decided 40 years ago.

Censored stories are “stories of evil suppressed by those who believe that ideas not held by the majority are necessarily evil.”

— Historian Richard L. Darling

In 1982, the Island Tree School District east of New York City argued its case for the right to ban books before the U.S. Supreme Court. It said it had a duty to protect the children in its system from the “moral danger” posed by certain titles; books that were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”

One of the books the school district deemed antisemitic was The Fixer, a novel about antisemitism in Russia in 1911, by the Jewish author Bernard Malamud.

The Supreme Court ruled against the school district, citing the guarantee to free expression enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. But that ruling has not stopped or even slowed down the clamouring to have certain books removed from libraries and schools.

The targets are overwhelmingly challenged because of sexual orientation and gender issues. In 2017, then director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom said that “America seems to be very exercised about sex.” The top three books banned in 2021 were singled out because of LBGTQ content.

As John Steinbeck was creating his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote:

“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects]. I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”

He did that alright, and the book has been banned in many U.S. states because it contains rough language. Corporate America attacked it as being in support of Communism.

Protecting the Innocent Minds of Children

It's reasonably safe to assume that every book ever published will upset someone, somewhere, in some way. Herewith, a brief journey into the world of people determined to find something to be offended about.

Under the guise of shielding children from the evils of the world, many parents have launched seemingly trivial complaints against what is on school library shelves.

  • In Catalonia, Spain, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood, among many other titles, were banned from school libraries in 2019 on the grounds they perpetuated sexist stereotypes.
  • A regular on the banning lists is Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell's 2005 picture book for children, And Tango Makes Three. It tells the story of two male penguins that adopt and hatch an abandoned egg. Whoa! Gay parents. The Focus on the Family group called the book “a very disingenuous, inaccurate way to promote a political agenda to little kids.” Never mind that the book has won many awards and has been praised as a way of introducing kids to alternate family arrangements; that's an unpopular theme with those on the Christian right. The argument being that if a voice expresses a counterpoint to their community's values, it must be made to shut up.
  • The graphic novel Maus by Art Siegelman depicts the Holocaust. In January 2022, the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee banned the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the grounds of nudity and profanity. The irony is deep in that Hitler's Nazis banned and burned 25,000 books that depicted Jews in a positive light. Siegelman said the board's decision was “daffily myopic” and it “has the breath of autocracy and fascism about it.” There was a backlash—oh boy, was there a backlash. The public voted with their dollars. Maus shot to the top of sales on Amazon and appeared as a bestseller in many locations.
  • The Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey appears frequently on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books. Usually, the complaint is about scatological humour, something that the target audience of eight-to-ten-year olds finds hilariously funny. Not some of their parents though. Pilkey has written that “There are some adults out there who are not amused by the things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp these things out.”
  • In Culver City, California, a 1987 version of Little Red Riding Hood was banned because an image showed a bottle of wine in the basket the little girl was carrying to her grandmother's. The wine is in the original, 17th-century story, but it was too much for assistant superintendent for instruction Vera Jashni, who told Associated Press, the wine “gives the younger ones the wrong impression about alcohol. If they should refrain, why give them a story saying it's okay?”
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America created this image with the caption “One child is holding something that's been banned in America to protect them.”

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America created this image with the caption “One child is holding something that's been banned in America to protect them.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Index Librorum Prohibitorum of 1559 was not discarded until 1966.
  • Dr. Zhivago by Russian author Boris Pasternak was a worldwide bestseller chronicling an upper-class family's struggles during the turmoil in Russia between 1905 and World War II. The book was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. However, the book failed to heap praise on the Communist revolution of 1917 and was described by the state-controlled media as an “artistically squalid, malicious work.” Pasternak was ordered to reject the prize.
  • The Texas Department of Criminal Justice banned the children’s book Where’s Waldo? Santa Spectacular from its prisons' shelves. However, Adolf Hitler's autobiography, Mein Kampf, was deemed suitable for inmates.
  • The World Book Banning Week is held at the end of September every year.

Don't join the book burners. Don't think you are going to conceal faults by concealing the evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go into your library and read every book.

— Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor