The banning of books is one of the oldest and most commonly practiced forms of censorship in human history. For centuries, governments, religious authorities, and countless other groups have made a practice of banning any works of literature they deem to be offensive for one reason or another. Although the reasons for book banning and the organizations behind such bans have varied greatly over the years, the practice continues into the twenty-first century.
Who Bans Books and Why
Book bans can be issued by a variety of authorities. Governments or religious institutions often initiate large-scale book bans. Small-scale book bans are commonly enacted by minor governing bodies, such as school boards, at the urging of groups of concerned individuals. The stated reasons for the banning of specific books often vary depending on the body initiating the ban in question.
Governments that engage in censorship typically ban books that express views contrary to those of the state or that are seen as being in some way threatening to the welfare of the state. Similarly, religious institutions that practice censorship usually target books that fail to align with or are critical of the stated beliefs of a given religion. Smaller authorities generally ban books for specific content issues such as sexual explicitness, the use of offensive language, political incorrectness, and violence. In many cases, these bans are the result of concerns over the appropriateness of certain books for young readers.
A Brief History of Book Banning
Various authorities have been banning and destroying books for practically as long as books have existed. Throughout the early ages when books could only be produced by hand and far fewer existed, those who objected to specific books could easily destroy them and thus prevent the spread of undesirable information. That changed when Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1395–c. 1468) invented the printing press around 1450. The large-scale publication and distribution of books made possible by Gutenberg’s press made it virtually impossible to destroy every copy of a book deemed to be offensive. The massive shift in the availability of literature brought on by the printing press forced people to find new ways of suppressing controversial reading materials. Within forty years of Gutenberg’s invention, his home country of Germany began operating its first censorship office.
A similar authority was put in place in England by Henry VIII (1491–1547). He mandated that no book could be published without the approval of the Church of England. Not satisfied with simply controlling the literature published in his own country, Henry VIII took his censorship measures one step further by initiating an outright ban on all foreign-published books in 1529.
The Roman Catholic Church made its first major foray into book censorship in 1557 with the publication of the first version of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The publication of this list of church-banned books was a response to the rising tide of threats to church authority brought about by the Protestant Reformation and increasing interest in scientific study. Although the church lacked the political authority to definitively ban any books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum served as a guide for those who held direct censorship powers. Until it was finally discontinued in 1966, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum included works by authors such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870), and Victor Hugo (1802–1885).
When Europeans began migrating to the Americas after the discovery of the New World, they brought their censorship customs with them. Massachusetts Puritans began conducting some of the earliest American book burnings in 1650. Widespread censorship practices did not begin to take hold in America, however, until Anthony Comstock (1844–1915), the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, persuaded Congress to pass the Comstock Law in 1873. The Comstock Law prohibited the mailing of any materials classified as lewd or obscene. On the authority of the law, Comstock, as a special agent of the US Post Office, enforced the censorship of a range of books, including The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights, and works by authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), and James Joyce (1882–1941). As anticensorship sentiment grew, the Comstock Law was challenged and eventually succumbed, thanks in large part to the decision of a US district court in United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933.
While the idea of censorship was losing popularity in the United States, it remained a powerful tool in other countries. Censorship became a common practice in Europe during the turbulent political periods of the 1920s throughout the 1940s. Dictators in both Italy and Yugoslavia, for example, banned many of the works of author Jack London (1876–1916), citing their allegedly radical nature. Bans and book burning demonstrations also became a regular occurrence in Nazi Germany. In the 1950s, South Africa’s apartheid government banned Mary Shelley’s (1797–1851) Frankenstein, among other classic novels. The Soviet Union also had a long history of censorship and was known for banning books that it saw as being critical or misrepresentative of the Soviet state, including Boris Pasternak’s (1890–1960) Doctor Zhivago and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s (1918–2008) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Malaysian officials banned author E. L. James’ (1963–) Fifty Shades book series in 2015 because of its sexually explicit content. In 2017, author Abbad Yahya’s (c. 1988–) Crime in Ramallah was banned by Palestinian authorities over its sexual content and political commentary.
Modern American Book Censorship
Most examples of book censorship in modern America are related to the appropriateness of various works for classroom use by students or their consumption by young readers in general. This means that most modern book bans are the result of efforts by concerned parents or school officials looking to protect children from exposure to certain themes or ideas contained within targeted books that they view as objectionable. Although the legality of such bans has often been questioned, many books have been and remain outlawed in select school districts across the country.
The type of content that typically incites book banning movements in modern schools usually falls into one of several general categories. Some of these include content that is overtly violent, sexually explicit, supportive of alternative lifestyles, politically incorrect, tied to witchcraft or the occult, or written using profane language. Any book with content that does not meet the moral standards of decency set by specific groups of people or even entire communities may be subjected to bans or other forms of censorship.
In many cases, both modern and classic literature titles were held to these standards of decency and subsequently banned. Several of William Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) plays have been banned for references to sex, sexuality, and violence. Mark Twain’s (1835–1910) Huckleberry Finn has been the subject of many banning movements due to its use of offensive terms in referring to African Americans and Native Americans.
The theme of same-sex relationships has been a particularly common reason to ban books in some circles. In 2000, members of a Wichita Falls, Texas, church moved to have Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate removed from the shelves of a community library because of their reference to same-sex relationships. Although a ban was enacted, it was later overturned by court order.
Even the most popular children’s books, normally hailed for encouraging kids to read, have been the focus of banning controversies. One Arkansas school board attempted to ban the Harry Potter series on grounds that it popularized the occult. That ban was also overturned by court decision.
Banned Books Week
Since 1982, the American Library Association (ALA) has sponsored Banned Books Week every year during the last week in September. Banned Books Week is a celebration of banned and challenged books and is aimed at raising awareness of the importance of free speech. Throughout the celebration, people are encouraged to read banned books and express their constitutional right to enjoy whatever type of literature they choose. Banned Books Week typically includes special banned book reading events held at libraries and other locations across the country. The novel Thirteen Reasons Why, originally published in 2007, was the #1 book on the ALA’s list of the most challenged books of 2017. The book resurfaced after it became the basis for the Netflix television series 13 Reasons Why. The novel was banned and challenged in multiple school districts because of its depictions of bullying, sexual assault, and suicide.