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100 Banned Books:
A Review


Steven C. Scheer
stevenscheer@wowway.com

J.K. Rowling, author of the phenomenally successful Harry Potter books, has unceremoniously announced that she "really hates censorship" in a fairly recent Time magazine interview (October 30, 2000). She is not alone. We know that censorship has been around since the beginning of time, but I still think that many of us are in for a surprise when we discover just what, when, and why has been banned or burned throughout the history of writing. 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature by Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Bald, and Dawn B. Sova, with an Introduction by Ken Wachsberger (New York: Checkmark Books, 1999), explores 100 examples in four categories: the political, the religious, the sexual, and the social.

The authors cover 25 books in each category, giving first an outline of each book in question followed by an account of the censorship history in each case. In addition to the 25 cases in each category, each section has a brief introductory essay giving the essence of the kind of censorship "appropriate" under each category. Whether it comes from above (from church or state) or below (from ultra-religious parents - for the most part - challenging reading lists in high schools, for example), the end result is always the same. Censorship forms a "treacherous current" the "undertow" of which "can ensnare the mind in the tangled weeds of ignorance and irrationality" (2).

We may not be surprised to learn that Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago was banned in the former Soviet Union on political grounds, or even that the Manifesto of the Communist Party or Hitler's Mein Kampf have been censored elsewhere, but we might well be shocked to find that many works we hold sacred in our Euro-American culture are also on the list. The most prominent among these are John Milton's Areopagitica and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Milton's attack on censorship (the licensing of books prior to publication specifically) is a classic example of what in the time-honored sense a liberal arts education is all about. People who merely believe what they are told, who never question or examine the ideas they hold true, who believe without the support of their own reason, in other words, hold the ideas they hold in a superficial way. Even if the ideas are true (in which case questioning is not going to destroy them), they are not, for Milton, held in the right way. Harriet Beecher Stowe's contribution to the abolition of slavery is a good case in point.

The big surprise in reading 100 Banned Books for me, at least, was to find that the sacred scriptures of three of the world's major religions have also been censored on religious grounds from time to time for one reason or another. They include The Talmud, The Bible, and The Koran. Censorship of The Talmud was initiated by the Catholic Church and it lasted for many centuries on the grounds of its perceived "blasphemy and immorality" (261). What may come as a real surprise is that the Bible itself was censored, also by the Catholic Church. The reasoning here may strike us as bordering on the irrational. What came under fire were translations of the Bible into the vernacular for fear the text might get corrupted or misinterpreted. The Catholic Church did not seem to stop and think about the fact that the Latin Vulgate it held officially acceptable was itself translated from the original Hebrew and Greek. In fact, the most shocking story in the suppression of translations of the Bible is the fate of William Tyndale, the first person to translate the Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek. "In a plot masterminded by English authorities, Tyndale was arrested by authorities in Antwerp, Belgium, tried for heresy and strangled and burned at the stake near Brussels in 1536 with copies of his Bible translation" (179).

The fact that certain works have been banned on sexual grounds will probably not surprise many people (and I am, of course, not implying that most of us agree with the practice, but only that we will not be surprised). At the same time, I think it will come as a shock to see just which books have been so censored. The list includes some of the unquestionable masterpieces of world literature, such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (considered to have been the first novel in English), Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, James Joyce's Ulysses, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. In many cases, of course, the banning of certain books has only helped catapult them into the ranks of the bestsellers. One of the ironies that should give pause to would-be censors.

The category of censorship on social grounds is a bit more elusive than the other three categories. Essentially, books under this heading "have been censored because their subject matter or characters do not conform to the social, racial or sexual standards of their censors" (333). Though this category is more elusive than the other three, here we are clearly in the midst of matters of interpretation. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, for example, was censored by some of its earliest readers on the grounds that Hawthorne sided and sympathized with Hester Prynne as opposed to her husband. These readers seem to simply miss the whole point of the book, or just ignore large segments of the text, where Hester's husband obviously emerges as in some sense a greater sinner than Hester and her Puritan clergyman lover. They sinned for love. Hester's husband was motivated by vengeance fueled by inhuman and unforgiving hatred.

One of the most interesting things that emerges from a reading of 100 Banned Books is the ultimate futility of all censorship. Though the Bible, for example, has been one of the most censored books of all time, it has also had more translations and more editions than any other book in the history of publishing. Most other books that at one time or another had met with the fury of rigidly dogmatic people who cannot seem to abide whatever doesn't adhere to whatever absolutes they hold sacred, have also done well in the long run. Milton has it right in his Areopagitica. Unexamined words, like unexamined ideas, are not worth the paper they are written on (or, in today's world, the computer screen on which they appear). Freedom of expression encourages freedom of thought. Suppressing free expression merely drives free thinking underground. From there it is destined to emerge again. The whole point of the liberal arts is to allow us to think our way clear of the prejudices of our time and place, or to dismantle the possible illusions that may lurk in the conventional wisdom of received opinion. As I say in several of my writings elsewhere, the enemy of critical thinking is habitual ways of thinking.

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Copyright 2000 - 2004 © by Steven C. Scheer. All rights reserved.

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