Trying to shut out the light by banning books
By Paul McMasters
First Amendment Ombudsman
First Amendment Center
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
"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
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
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
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
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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