Ban This Book!

Entry by: Nutcracker

6th March 2022
Is There Ever a Good Reason to Ban Books?

In 35AD the Roman Emperor Caligula discouraged people from reading Homer's The Odyssey because it could give them a taste of what it meant to be free. There we have the reason for banning books in a nutshell: those in power attempting to stop anyone challenging their power by obtaining knowledge that will enable them to act independently.

So when books have been banned over the centuries it is about their perceived threat to prevailing ideologies: in the seventeenth century books challenging puritanism were banned, while the book most frequently banned from schools in the US in recent years is Alex Gino's novel Melissa (originally published as George), about a boy who wants to be a girl. Twentieth century classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men have been banned in certain quarters because of their inclusion of racial slurs and stereotypes, while the banning of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Madame Bovary has been because of their depictions of what those offended saw as sexual transgression. Those responsible for bans - generally libraries, schools and universities - have seen themselves as safeguarding the public from exposure to ideas which challenge societal norms or at least norms to which they aspire.

Sometimes books are banned because they are seen as promulgating propaganda which makes those in power discomforted. In 1944 T S Eliot, then on the Board of the publisher Faber and Faber, turned down George Orwell's Animal Farm, an allegory of Stalin's dictatorship, because he did not want to offend the Soviet Union, at the time an ally of Britain against Nazi Germany. Quite what he meant when he wrote in his rejection letter that Orwell should have included 'more public spirited pigs' in the book remains obscure! Animal Farm was published a year later by Secker and Warburg, but was banned in Russia until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and more recently the Chinese leader Xi Jinping has banned it in his country.

One can understand why those in power - especially, but not exclusively, in totalitarian regimes - are nervous of material circulating containing ideas and arguments that might make people reluctant to follow them. But this is surely not a good reason to ban books. Books themselves do not make people act, and it is actions that are good or bad.

Take Enid Blyton's The Little Black Doll, in which the doll Sambo is only accepted by his owner once his 'ugly black face' is washed 'clean by rain'. Racist, yes, but that does not make the reader into a racist. Possibly the opposite, as it provides material for a parent or teacher to talk to a child about how they should and can behave in an inclusive manner towards others. This is not to say that racist material should be promulgated, but Enid Blyton's stories are not all bad. Indeed they have inspired a love of reading in generations of children.

The act of banning a book will attract people who will want to seek it out for that very reason. The better thing is that there is debate, amongst adults as well as in schools, about different perspectives on the world. Our tendency is to read material which supports our world view, but it is surely by considering different points of view that we hone our critical faculties. So, if we tend to left wing views, let us not dismiss a book because we see it as right wing, and vice versa.

Books will continue to be read, but in our rapidly-changing world we also draw on the media for information and views. A regime that wishes to promote disinformation - that is to say false or deliberately misleading information - will not be concerned with books, but can can use internet robots - bots -to spread their viewpoint. Consider this: if Vladimir Putin wants to see the hashtag #PutinWinninginUkraine trending on Twitter he can do this at the click of a button. He does not need to worry about people reading Animal Farm.

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