The week beginning September 20th marked the start of Banned Books Week. Glenn Dunlea writes about the ancient tradition of book banning, and questions why it still goes on today.
Freedom of speech is the right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship. One would be forgiven for thinking that in this day and age, you can read or write about whatever you choose. In all honesty nothing could be further from the truth. Hundreds of books and documents remain banned across the world for different reasons, screened from public view because for whatever reason they are deemed either socially, politically or religiously unacceptable.
The practice of book banning often leads to impassioned arguments, and rightly so, “banning a book is stifling creative ingenuity… it just goes to show that even in this day and age an idea can cause fear”. It also raises the oft asked question about what is or is not suitable for human intellectual consumption, “most books were banned in their time, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita because they were seen as obscene… but today, with the amount of exposure we have to so many things, banning a book for its content is as ridiculous as condemning a person for their race.”
But why? Why is it that pieces of literature, often created for our enjoyment, can cause enough unrest to lead to their being totally prohibited? The answer is not a simple one. The prohibition of some books is understandable, to a degree. The Bible, The Qur’an, and The Talmud have all had troubled histories in print, and have time and time again been banned for numerous different reasons. For some the very idea that a person’s life should be lived by guidelines set out in a specific text is one not to be borne. And many on the face of this argument would agree with it. But could the same argument therefore not be applied to self-help books?
Hugely popular books such as What to Expect When You’re Expecting and The Joy of Sex have been telling people what to do in certain circumstances for decades. Lifestyle books like Eat, Pray, Love have been guiding people in how to live from day to day for years, and quite a lot of people swear by them. Why then are these too not censored? The truth is they are. The Joy of Sex has proved highly controversial since it was first published, but that hasn’t stopped it become a best-selling work.
A piece of literature need not be overtly controversial for it to be condemned. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned in the province of Hunan, China, for its portrayal of anthropomorphised animals acting like human beings. It was felt that that for human language to be attributed to animals was an insult to humans, and would teach children to value animals on the same level as humans. Dr Suess’s Green Eggs and Ham was also banned in the People’s Republic of China for its perceived representation of early Marxism.
The most banned book (collectively) of the 21st century, according to the American Library Association – is the Harry Potter series. This is due in large part to the religious messages in the series, or rather, lack there of. This has lead to people taking it upon themselves to not only ban the series, but also completely rewrite it, emphasising religion and human morals. Of particular note is a ‘fan fiction’ version written by an American mother that goes by the online name of Grace Ann. She calls her work Hogwarts School of Prayers and Miracles.
In Grace Ann’s version of the tale, Harry’s aunt Petunia is an atheist who believes in ‘evils’ such as evolution and birthdays. Hagrid is a Christian, who comes to Harry’s door wearing a ‘necklace that looked to Harry like a lowercase T’ and asks him if he would like to become a Christian. If so, he’ll have to attend the Hogwarts School of Prayers and Miracles. Also among the cast of characters are Reverend Albus Dumbledore, his ‘lovely, young’ wife Minerva, and their daughter, Hermione, who is ‘so different from all the girls in public school, who were focused on trying to be like the career women they saw on Sex and the City.’ Ron Weasley, is an idol-worshiping Slytherin, and the stories revolve around the protagonists battling evil with prayer. Surely this is the version that should be banned, as apposed to the original series?
Fundamentally, as a society, we cannot decide what is or is not suitable, and that is largely the main issue when it comes to literature. What one person considers obscene another looks at as great prose. As I said before, the practice of book banning is an ancient one, and goes all the back to the dawn of printing. The need for people to censor the work of others is one that has existed since the birth of humanity. As long as something exists for someone to judge it, you can be guaranteed that someone will do just that. And, for now, that practice shows absolutely no signs of stopping.