[Happy Banned Books Week! In high school I had a deeply nerdy sweatshirt that read “Celebrate Freedom: Read a Banned Book”; this week I’ll do so by AmericanStudying books that have been frequently banned, in the past or recently. And yeah, read a Banned Book this week!]
When banning becomes censorship, and the best ways to respond to the latter.
The examples of both banning and challenging that I’ve discussed in my posts so far (and those I’ll discuss in the remaining couple of posts in the series) have generally involved classrooms, schools, and/or libraries. Since those are among the most common places where we as a society encounter books, of course, the questions of what to read (or not read) there or what to include (or not include) in a collection are certainly vital ones, with significant consequences for whether and how readers (young and old alike) encounter a particular book and author. That’s particularly true for readers who can’t afford or aren’t as likely to buy a book, since schools and libraries offer the only consistently available free alternatives to such purchases. But I think it’s nonetheless important to distinguish between those forms of banning and challenging, frustrating and destructive as they might be, and what we would call censorship, since those forms don’t involve either stopping a work from being published or keeping it out of the hands of readers entirely.
Those latter forms of more aggressive censorship are significantly rarer, but the word certainly seems to apply to how a number of Islamic and Arabic societies and nations responded to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (1988). Rushdie’s acclaimed and controversial novel, which combined biographical and historical details surrounding the life of Muhammad with magical realism and satire, was outright banned from sales in many of those nations, as well as in India (where it was defined as hate speech toward a religious group). The attacks on the novel and its author famously and horrifically went far further still, with Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a call for Rushdie’s death that led to multiple assassination attempts and, tragically, the murder of the novel’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi (among other violent incidents). Yet even if those extreme and awful events had not transpired, the bans on the novel’s publication and sales in these societies would certainly constitute censorship at its worst, the denial of the book to millions (or perhaps, in India’s case, billions) of potential readers and communities.
Obviously the most straightforward way to resist such censorship is to work to challenge and reverse the bans, which as far as I can tell remain in place in many of those nations (including India). On a more individual level, both reading and (when one can) purchasing such censored books is an important way not just to challenge the concept of censorship, but also to support the author (whether financially or otherwise). But I would also argue—perhaps obviously, but also genuinely—that engagements with the histories and stories of banned books, such as those I’m offering in this week’s series, comprise another important way to resist literary censorship in all its forms. As is so often the case, the more we engage these histories and stories, the clearer it becomes that they have been consistently wrong—not just in moral or ethical terms (although yes), but also in their fundamental misreadings of texts and misunderstandings of their effects on audiences. Indeed, the history of literary censorship—as illustrated most potently by Nazi Germany’s book burnings—reveals that it is precisely such censorship, not books, which has the potential to destroy societies.
Next banned book tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Banned books you’d highlight?
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