I’ve been pondering the issue of censorship for awhile now, at least as it applies to print media. There are different kinds of censorship, of course, the most obvious being the most visible: book burnings, blacked out passages, government bans on particular books or authors, and so forth. But the truth is, we each encounter subtler forms of censorship every day.
There are the news stories, articles and books that don’t get printed, whether for political or social reasons, or because it is thought that there isn’t an audience for the material. There is the unintentional censorship perpetrated by libraries and bookstores, because no one can shelve every single book in one place, and choices have to be made. I like to think that in most places, those choices are made according to more or less objective criteria, and with the needs of the users and the community in mind, but I know that’s not always the case.
What really gets me are the cases where books are banned. I think a lot of people hear the phrase “banned books” and think of large-scale, government initiated prohibition, but in fact books are challenged, and sometimes banned as a result, every single day in schools and libraries. A lot of the books challenged are cited as not being age appropriate, containing too much sex, violence or bad language, and increasingly, containing elements of the occult (magic, like the kind in Harry Potter, will apparently subvert kids’ Christianity, or something). The American Library Association keeps lists of books that are banned each year and has tons of related information on the subject; if you’re curious, take a look at Banned Books.
It actually makes sense to me that this happens; whenever children are involved, people, especially parents, have an understandable impulse to protect them from whatever they see as threatening. I don’t agree with the philosophy of denying access to all because a few find something distasteful, but I think I understand the impulse.
What I don’t understand is why people don’t realize that by seeking to ban a book, they draw more attention to the thing they want to make disappear. I’m sure most of you are aware of the controversy surrounding this year’s Newberry Award winner, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. And I’ll bet you anything that the resulting attention has made far more people actually read the book than would have otherwise. This, it seems to me, somewhat defeats the purpose of banning the book.
I also find it fascinating that this cycle has been played out thousands of times, ever since the introduction of print. In the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church issued the first edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or Index of Prohibited Books. These were books that the church considered dangerous to itself and its members. While the Index was at least somewhat successful at eliminating heretical books in Catholic countries, in Protestant countries the presence of a title on the Index could actually serve to increase sales. There was even a printer in England, John Wolfe, who figured out that he could make a bigger profit not only by printing prohibited books, but by making them look as though they had been printed on the Continent contrary to the church’s prohibitions.
Even in Protestant countries, works that were considered heretical or treasonous would be seized from print shops and burned, or ordered to have certain passages cut out before sale. Sometimes the censors couldn’t get to a book before it had already been widely distributed. In those cases, they would distribute instruction sheets with pages to be removed or passages to be blacked out of the books in question. I wonder how many owners of said books dutifully went through and followed both the letter and the spirit of the law. There are numerous examples of readers following the letter of the law only, striking through the questionable passages lightly with pen, or even pencil, so that the words are still clearly legible.
My favorite discovery as a rare books librarian are those passages that were blacked out centuries ago, but now with the passage of time, the ink has faded to brown, and the prohibited passages beneath are legible once again. For some great examples of this, and samples of various versions of the Index, see the UW-Madison Department of Special Collection’s site on Don Quixote.
I’ve been studying the historical aspects of censorship for some time now, and I’ve always had a vague sense that this kind of thing still goes on to varying degrees today, even in such supposedly free countries as the good old USA. Especially now, with things like the Patriot Act, censorship and monitoring of print media is perhaps as much a part of our daily lives as it was for sixteenth century printers and readers. Recently I’ve been cataloging a collection of books devoted to First Amendment Freedoms, and it is full of eye-opening material about the actions of our government in the name of national security.
I’m not really sure where I’m going with this at this point, other than to say that while there may not be a whole lot we can do about laws or government and corporate policies that are already in place, we can try to be aware and informed about the effects of those laws and policies on our daily reading habits. We can try to elect government officials who see the folly of these laws, and will actually work to protect our First Amendment freedoms. We can encourage our schools and libraries not to bend to the pressure of the small-minded. We can read banned books, and challenge ourselves to read ideas outside of our usual comfort-zones.
Have you read a banned book today?