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Trying to shut out the light by banning books


By Paul McMasters
First Amendment Ombudsman
First Amendment Center


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One of the signal events in human history was the invention of the printing press in Mainz, Germany. That was in 1448. In 1485, the archbishop of Mainz asked local officials to collaborate with church officials to censor "dangerous publications." A year later, Germany's first secular censorship office was established in Mainz.

It's good to remind ourselves from time to time that the birthplace of the printing press also was the birthplace of banned books.

As Gutenberg's great invention quickly spread from Mainz across Europe, the censors were never far behind. Unlike the printers, they had centuries of experience in their craft.

In short order, Switzerland, England and Spain, as well as Germany, began requiring printing licenses, a most effective way of controlling both the writers of books and the readers of books. (It should be noted that the Dominican monk Savonarola was much more direct. In the public square of Florence, he set off a "bonfire of the vanities" torching the manuscripts and printed works of such dangerous writers as Dante and Ovid.)

No doubt there were numerous banned-book lists during this time, but the earliest recorded was in England in 1529, when Henry VIII issued such a list.

"How quaint" might be our immediate reaction to such ancient history. But we're still at it, aren't we? Even here in America in the Information Age, we pay lip service to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but we continue to attack books as though they were the devil incarnate.

Thus perched on the cusp of the second millennium, we begin the annual observance of Banned Books Week. The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom has issued the list of the "Ten Most Challenged Books of 1999." Not surprisingly, most of the books listed were written by highly regarded authors, are judged essential teaching materials by educators, and are loved by young people.

For all those reasons, and more, they are reviled and condemned by a small but committed group of guardians of morality, who are encouraged and empowered by public officials in thrall to their political clout.

The hundreds of challenges in this year's Banned Books list trot out a variety of reasons for the complaints. Some of these are tried and true: sexual situations, crude language, inappropriate for the age group, occult themes and violence.

But others reflect just how deeply we have sunk into personal pique, seeking to define ourselves by how we take offense. Descartes' dictum in 1637 was, "I think; therefore I am." The new, updated version is, "I am offended; therefore I am."

Thus many of today's book challengers complain about themes that they believe encourage disrespectful behavior, center on "negative activity," or lead young readers into fantasy worlds that create confusion.

Book challenges may well be exercises in free speech, but they too easily and too frequently turn into exercises of arbitrary power, even censorship. Just a few recent examples:

In Lynchburg, Va., the school board decided to censor an anatomy and physiology textbook, objecting to the illustration of a vagina. A member of the committee of parents, teachers and students that had selected the book described the text as one of the best she had seen.

In Foley, Ala., Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was taken off the high school library's shelves after a parent complained about references to orgies, self-flagellation, suicide and characters' contempt for religion, marriage and family. Officials apparently weren't impressed by the fact that the novel is ranked fifth on the Modern Library Top 100 best English language novels of the 20th century.

In Catskill, N.Y., six churches circulated a petition to keep the public library from showing the Martin Scorsese movie The Last Temptation of Christ as part of its banned-books week observance.

In Fairfield, Calif., school trustees proposed a book-rating system and questioned the district's selection process following complaints about two acclaimed books, House of Spirits by Isabel Allende and Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane.

In Wichita Falls, Texas, the city council enacted a law that allowed "objectionable" books to be removed from the public library if 300 library-card holders signed a petition against it. Last week, a federal judge struck down the law as unconstitutional.

One measure of just how far such actions can go: In Spotswood, Va., not long ago the school superintendent decided the banned-books lists themselves were too dangerous and forced a teacher to remove them from his classroom door. The teacher later resigned after nine years at the school.

For the most part, book-banners don't seem to have a sense of history, a sense of irony, a sense of guilt or a sense of intellectual decency. They continue to flail away at their personal demons, concocting all sorts of rationales for what boils down to a decided distrust of both the values and standards they have taught their own children and their friends' and neighbors' ability to properly raise their own children.

And while the rationalizations may be monumental, they are, in the end, no more than elaborate walls erected against knowledge and thinking. Books are feared because they arm people against oppression, conformity and ignorance. They are banned because they might make readers, young and old, less docile and more demanding.

According to this mindset, books are dangerous because they challenge the conventions we use to control. They offer a different view of the values we have chosen for ourselves, a choice we would deny others – including our children.

Two centuries of enlightenment brought on by the advent of the printing press have failed to ease our fear of the new and the different. We still struggle vainly to resist change. It is something of a miracle that our children do learn and grow, despite our best efforts to shut out the light, to dim and deny it.

Mainz may have been the birthplace of both the printing press and the banning of books, but censorship itself was born in the fearful heart of the first human being. It ranks high among our darkest impulses, at once announcing our fear and confirming our ignorance.

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Missouri librarians latest to discover: Banning makes books popular
Meanwhile, ACLU reports 218 challenges to remove 134 books from school libraries across Texas last year.  09.24.02

From Harry Potter to 'Blubber': 100 books make list of most challenged of the '90s
Authors, free-speech advocates say parents don't have right to make book decisions for children of others.  07.20.00

Popular children's author relates '3 S's' of book censorship
Judy Blume tells First Amendment Center audience that pattern of targeting books comes down to three words: sexuality, swearing and Satan.  10.02.00

'Huck Finn' still pushes buttons, professor says
'If it isn't a dangerous book, there really is no reason for anybody to read it or teach it,' panelist Michael Kreyling tells First Amendment Center audience.  09.26.00

School systems across U.S. challenge books on reading lists
Local Georgia school board proposes banning The Catcher in the Rye and books with bad words from high school curriculum.  08.15.01

Browse more Ombudsman columns