After kicking off Banned Books Week with yesterday’s introduction post on how and where books are being banned, I want to continue this series today by highlighting why banning books is such a problematic issue.
But first, let me tell you a story…
It’s a cool night in May and it’s pouring down. You’re standing in a public square with thousands of other people – nameless faces. You’re facing the direction in which a man is speaking in the middle of the crowd, but you’re not looking at him. Your eyes are fixed on the building in the background – the opera house. The opera in front of you, the university at your back – you’re standing right in a center of culture and knowledge. The rain is soaking through your clothes; soaking everything. Fabric, Paper, Wood… You can feel the mood of the crowd shifting, although you’re not aware of any sounds. Everything feels surreal. It suddenly smells like gasoline. You glance at the trucks in the distance, loaded with books. Thousands of them. Enough to fill a whole library. Just then, there’s an explosion of glowing light in the center of the square. You turn your head back and all the nameless faces are illuminated by the glow of the fire, flames soaring high into the night sky. When something lands in the fire with a thud and sends sparks flying, the reality of it all sends your stomach plummeting to the ground.
It’s the 10th of May 1933 in Berlin and the Nazis have just started burning books with two copies of works by Marx and Kautsky. When the night is over, almost 25,000 books will have fallen victim to the flames – in Berlin alone.
All of those books had previously been removed from libaries, public and private, based on an initial blacklist put together by a private person. That first original blacklist listed 71 titles for the category fiction.
In the years following, more and more titles were added and an official list of forbidden authors and works was established. In 1935, just two years after the initial book burnings, the list comprised over 12,000 titles (for all categories).
Two notable works that are still among the canon of world literature today which were already part of the initial book burnings were Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front.
I’m sure most of you know that the protagonists in both of these novels are soldiers in World War I. Neither Hemingway nor Remarque sugarcoated the horrors of war or glorified the actions of the soldiers.
The Nazi regime on the other hand did everything in their power to do just that – to glorify war and the soldiers fighting it. Soldiers who had fought in World War I were celebrated heroes. Later, during World War II, the newsreels and the radio news were filled with joyful announcements about glorious victories of the German Wehrmacht – no word about horrible losses, people starving to death, soldiers having their limbs blown off.
So naturally, in order to keep up that false pretense of the happy-go-lucky war, the Nazi regime could not allow people to see even the slightest glimpse of what war really means – not even in fiction. And so Hemingway[‘s] and Remarque[‘s works] were among the first to be burned at the stake.
It’s not surprising that oppressive regimes love to ban books. An oppressive regime doesn’t want you to have access to the information that enables you to form your own opinion.
Now, you might ask what all of that has to do with the book banning taking place today, specifically in the USA. Books aren’t legally prohibited by the government after all, the First Amendment to the constitution makes that impossible.
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.
Nowadays, when books are banned, they are banned at a regional or local level and removed from the school curriculum or local libraries.
But in the end, it comes down to the same thing. The censorship in Nazi Germany took place with the removing and burning of all those books – the legal prohibition came later.
1 The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.
(source: OED online)
Note the verb ‘remove’ in the second definition. When parts of the story are removed, that’s censorship.
In the case of Nazi Germany, one side of the story was completely eliminated – by removing it. By removing access to any other version of the story that wasn’t in line with the official propaganda.
Now when books are being banned in the US today, access to those books is removed as well. It doesn’t matter that this doesn’t happen on a national scale. The scale is irrelevant. It’s censorship all the same.
Consider this: for someone who can’t get a book they were looking for from the local library, it might not be a problem – they might be able to buy the book online or drive to the neighboring town’s library and get it there. BUT these are only possible solutions to the problem if the person in question
a) has the means to travel to a neighboring town, usually a car or
b) has the financial means to be able to afford a book.
This should make one thing very clear: the ones who suffer the most from this kind of censorship are the poor and children.
Especially considering that you need to have a specific book in mind in order to notice its absence from the shelves in the first place. Children usually don’t browse books on goodreads or hear their colleagues at work chatting about some fantastic new release. When children go to the library, they aren’t looking for specific books, they browse the shelves. Their choice of what to read is made based on what’s available to them. And with books being banned, their options are being limited. Their choice is being limited. A choice has already been made for them.
Anyone who wants to and does ban books is simultaneously admitting that they want to limit people’s choice to the version they approve of. Banning books means admitting that you don’t want the targeted group of people to have an option. Banning books means that you want to indoctrinate others with your own belief.
That is harmful. And that is censorship.
Censorship is always harmful. No matter the scale.
Are you participating in Banned Books Week? What do you think about banning books? Do you have any favorite Banned Books?