This is Banned Books Week.
“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door...Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” — Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451
The censorship of ideas may be as old as ideas themselves. In 212 B.C.E., the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti had all books burned so that after his death, history would begin with him. In 1559, Pope Paul IV established the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which for over four centuries was the definitive list of books that Roman Catholics were not supposed to read. The Nazis famously banned and burned books for being “un-German.” These included works by Brecht, Kafka, and Einstein.
In 1759, the French government “suspended” the publication of Denis Diderot’s monumental Encyclopédie in response to religious controversies raised by the initial volumes. Publication continued in secret in what was then part of Switzerland. This work was a seminal product of the Enlightenment and a critically important touchstone for the establishment of democratic states and the defined establishment of intellectual freedom.
Each year since 2001, the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association has published a list of the ten most challenged books of the year (This year’s list has 11.). This list draws attention to the pervasive threats to intellectual freedom in a nation whose constitution includes a Bill of Rights that begins with a commitment to intellectual freedom:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The Constitution doesn’t explicitly state that books can’t be banned, but it does outline principles of intellectual freedom in the forms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and public criticism of the government. Often the mechanisms of these freedoms are dependent upon the dissemination of ideas through books. Our rights come into play not in our own decisions not to read a particular book, but when someone else decides what we can and cannot read.
In the United States, there have been calls for the removal of thousands of books from schools and libraries. Some of the most surprising banned books include E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and The American Heritage Dictionary. The latter apparently defined too many of the wrong words.
I was surprised to learn that J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye had been banned in my new hometown of Selinsgrove, PA in 1975. Apparently, some parents objected to the language and some of the ideas in the book.
As a junior high school student, I remember friends delighting in reading The Catcher in the Rye because in it, characters their own age used the language they used when their parents weren’t around. It made Holden Caulfield a sympathetic character they could trust. He wasn’t hiding behind someone else’s words. As an adult, I realize how important that literary resonance was for so many teen readers desperate to know that there were other young people struggling with mental health challenges too. If they hadn’t trusted him, they wouldn’t have let him into their internal dialogues.
In recent years, we have witnessed the ascendency of truth wars. If someone articulates a point with which others disagree, it is declared fake. Ideas are challenged as they should be, but so are facts. To quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Global warming is a prime example. It is not an opinion, but an objectively demonstrated fact. It is the truth, and yet it is decried as fake.
Countervailing views are a necessary component of a truly democratic society, and it is all too easy to suppress the voices of the loyal opposition, such as the voices of Copernicus, Galileo, Martin Niemöller, Jane Addams, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
We are navigating through a world of information quicksand. We need to protect the truth. We need to protect our foundational freedoms. This is what makes Banned Books Week more important than ever.