Banning books is an old phenomenon. One of the first examples was during the Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti’s reign. From 259 to 210 B.C., he allegedly burned 460 Confucian scholars alive to control how history was written during his life. In 212 B.C., he burned all but one copy of each book, which were kept in the Royal Library. But those too, were destroyed before he died.
In 35 A.D., the Roman emperor Caligula opposed Home’s The Odyssey, written more than 300 years before, because he thought the Greek ideas of freedom dangerous. In 1807, Dr. Thomas Bowdler published his revised edition of Shakespeare’s plays, in which he had removed “everything that can raise a blush on the cheek of modesty.” One hundred and fifty years later, it was discovered that it had been Dr. Bowdler’s sister Henrietta Maria who had exorcised the texts. The Bowdler name led to the word “bowdlerize,” meaning “to expurgate (something, such as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar.”
In 1933, months after the Nazis took power, the main courtyard of Humboldt University in Berlin was used to burn books by “Jewish, communist, or ‘degenerate’ authors.” In Munich, over 25,000 books “unGerman” books were burned. This event is still commemorated today, when many of the books are read in public.
Even children’s books were not immune. During the 1980s, the London County Council banned Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from all London schools because the stories only portrayed “middle-class rabbits.”
Banned Books Week is the “annual celebration of the freedom to read” and draws attention to the harms that censorship creates. While many books have been banned over the years, they remain available through the efforts of booksellers, librarians, teachers, and others. It was launched in the 1980s, after the 1982 Island Trees School District v. Pico Supreme Court case, which ruled that “school libraries enjoy a special affinity with the rights of free speech and press. Therefore, the Board could not restrict the availability of books in its libraries simply because its members disagreed with their idea content.” That year, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) BookExpo America brought attention to the issue by placing more than 500 challenged books locked metal cages, with a sign cautioning that some thought the books dangerous.
The successful event led the ABA to invite Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) Director Judith Krug, and the National Association of College Stores to join the new Banned Books Week. This led to institutions, stores, and other businesses hosting similar events, with PBS and the New York Times covering it. Political leaders issues proclamations in support.
In 1933, The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses led to a new legal interpretation of the First Amendment. Judge John M. Woolsey overturned the federal ban of James Joyce’s Ulysses, because it did not meet the legal definition of obscenity, “[t]ending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts.” Woolsey ruled that the ban could be lifted, as Ulysses, “did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts, but that its net effect on them was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.”
The case set precedent, but the Comstock Act – passed on March 3, 1873, which “ defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines” – was not overturned until 1957 in the Supreme Court case Roth vs. The United States. The plaintiff, writer and bookseller Samuel Roth, was convicted of mailing pornographic magazines to subscribers. The court ruled that obscenity was not “”within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press” and that the First Amendment did not protect materials that were “utterly without redeeming social importance.” The test to determine obscenity, was “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.” This excluded books that depicted sex and violence.
This year’s Banned Books Week will be from September 23–29. The 2018 theme is “Banning Books Silences Stories,” “a reminder that everyone needs to speak out against censorship.” The BannedBooksWeek coalition has relevant materials. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom also has resources, including a “Top 10 Most Challenged Books List” from 1990 to the present.
What’s your favourite banned book?