What do Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther and the Marquis de Sade have in common?
Not much, you might say, as far as their personal histories and beliefs are concerned. Still, the have one thing in common: all three have had their books banned at one time or another by governments and authorities that fear the impact of the written word.
The number of books banned in history runs into tens of thousands as the history of censorship dates back to the beginning of written literature. The Tyrant of Syracuse, the man who employed Plato and then, having become angry with him, sold him into slavery, banned all Socratic writings some 2500 years ago. And in the 4th century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, it was the turn of the Church to impose a blanket ban on everything that the pre-Christian Greek and Roman, poets, writers and philosophers had created.
In this book three American scholars introduce the 120 most famous books to be banned and, at times, even burned on various grounds.
The authors present the banned books in four categories: political, religious, sexual, and social. Each category consists of 30 books presented in summary form followed by a brief history of the efforts to ban, restrict or censor them.
It is not always clear why these particular books have been chosen from among the tens of thousands of others that have suffered the same fate. And the fact that each category is limited to just 30 books is also strange if only because many more books have been suppressed on political and religious grounds than on sexual and social ones.
More importantly, there is a difference between censorship, in its various forms, and the outright suppression of a book. Thousands of books have been in circulation with only parts missing as a result of the censor’s scissors. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, at least 4000 books are available in censored form. The actual banning of a book, therefore, is a step further in depravity when it comes to attempts at thought control by despotic regimes.
In this book, however, no such distinction is made between a total ban and a partial “editing”.
Another problem with this book is that it is, in fact, mostly concerned with the United States where few books have ever been actually banned by the authorities. Books that ran into trouble in the United States were often targeted by religious and political organisations and other pressure groups. In some cases the groups succeeded in persuading a court to ban a particular book or keep it away from public-funded libraries. In the end, however, all the targeted books managed to make a comeback, often finding an even greater audience as a result of the attempts made to suppress them.
The authors point out that the impression that censorship for political reasons emanates only from national governments is mistaken.
One common source of censorship, at least in the United States, is the activity of school boards and citizen groups that feel offended by a book and seek to push it beyond the reach of the public.
Leafing through summaries of the banned books the reader might wonder what the fuss was about when they were targeted for censorship or total ban. For example, Goethe’s romantic noel “The Sufferings of Young Werther” now reads like the account of a juvenile delirium that, far from being tragic, contains an unmistakable comic potential. And, yet, in its time the book was banned because, so the authorities assumed, it was encouraging young Germans to emulate Werther and commit suicide.
Almost two centuries later it was the turn of “The Bell Jar”, a slim novel, by the American poetess Sylvia Plath, to be banned in many places because it was supposed to encourage young girls to commit suicide. Again reading the summary one might wonder why anyone thought Plath’s book dangerous.
And what about attempts over many centuries to ban such key religious texts as the Bible and the Koran? Any one who thought that people would stop being Christians or Muslims, because they had no access to basic texts, must have misunderstood the human soul. Years ago, visiting China, this writer met a number of Muslims who had specialised in learning the various surahs of the Koran by heart thus beating the ban imposed on the book by the Communist authorities. Thus open would meet a man who called himself “ Al-Baqarah” (The Cow) after the Second surah of the Koran while a woman would be presented as “ Al-Ankabut” (The Spider) after another surah.
During the Inquisition the Catholic Church organised frequent public sessions of book burning. They call this auto da fe which is Latin for “act of faith! At times the Inquisition was not satisfied with burning just the book and went further and burned the authors as well. Rome’s famous square the Campo di Fiori (Field of Flowers) became the venue of author-burning sessions organised by the Inquisition. One of the most famous of those burned was the philosopher Giordano Bruno one of whose books is introduced in this collection.
The authors identify the Catholic Church as the one organisation most responsible for banning books over the past 1700 years. The ban was not limited to texts of pother faiths, including the Talmud and the Koran, but extended to virtually the whole of Western literature that had preceded Christianity.
But is that designation fair? It is hard to say. As official religion, from the 4th century onwards, Christianity was often used as an instrument of power by the state. Whenever religion makes an alliance with politics, it ends up as the loser and, at the same time, takes the blame for the excesses of political authority.
The works of several contemporary Muslim-born authors are included in this book. One is the British writer Salman Rushdie, whose “Satanic Verses” caused a furore in the early 1990s. Another is the Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasrin who had a price put on her head for her novella “Lajja” (Shame). But, perhaps, the most interesting is the case of Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan academic and women-rights activist whose book, “The Veil And the Male Elite”, remains banned in many Muslim countries. In 2003 the translator, editor and publisher of Mernissi’s book in Iran were arrested, tried and sentenced to six years in prison, at a time that President Muhammad Khatami was preaching a “dialogue of civilisations.”
Those interested in the controversy caused by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust would be interested to know that he bases his view on one of the 120 banned books mentioned here.
The book in question is “The Hoax of The Twentieth Century” by British academic Arthur R Butz. Published in 1975 the book was promptly banned in many countries, including Britain and the United States but is available in Germany, Canada and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In most cases the banned books end up by having the last laugh against their censors. Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist despot, banned Confucius” “The Analects” and ordered all its copies seized and burned. Today, however,” The Analects” is back in virtually every Chinese home while Confucius has regained its place as an all time model for the Chinese people. Mao, however, is fading away and almost no one reads his silly little “Red Book” these days.
Russia’s greatest living writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn provides another case. In 1973 his book “The Gulag Archipelago” was banned and he himself expelled from the Soviet Union. In that same year Leonid Brezhnev, the geriatric dictator, won the Lenin Prize for Literature, the highest accolade for writers in the USSR. Even then everybody knew that Brezhnev was incapable of writing a letter to his mother let alone producing literature. And today no one reads Brezhnev, even in lunatic asylums while Solzhenitsyn has secured a place in the Russian classical cannon.
Those tempted into suppressing works of literature, religion and philosophy should read this informative book. May be it will convince them that censorship never works.