Thursday 2 October 2014

Banned Books

Not sure when the Bake Off recap will be coming - I had set aside three hours tonight to do it, but during that time iPlayer decided to break. So it might not be for a while... sorry!

Instead, I'll talk about banned books. I think either this week or last week was Banned Books Week, where we're encouraged to seek out books that have been banned somewhere or other in the world in the past or present. My question is... why?

I should say - I'm against banning books. That's a given. I'd relax that rule for books that go against existing laws (which is one of the reasons I don't have a problem with books having been banned under previous obscenity laws: different times) but, in general, I'm agin it.  However, that doesn't lead to me wanting to read banned books just because they've been banned.

I put this question out on Twitter (@stuck_inabook, since you ask) and had some interesting conversations. Some people agreed with me; some felt drawn to banned books, but weren't sure why.

Some great books have been banned, sure. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns, for instance, and (more famously) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, To Kill A MockingbirdLady Chatterley's Lover, etc. The Bible, of course, is still banned in many areas of the world. But some dreadful books have also been banned. Anybody who has had The Da Vinci Code refused to them has experienced an inadvertent blessing. Having been banned is no sign of quality, and - I have to confess - is more likely to put me off a book, if it has been banned for reasons of obscenity of blasphemy.

So, I am intrigued - if Banned Books Weeks appeal to you, can you explain why you want to read those books? Is it to celebrate the freedom to read whatever we want? Because that I applaud wholeheartedly. But I mostly want to celebrate that freedom by not reading those books.


  1. I see Banned Books Week less as an encouragement to read books that have been banned, and more a movement to point out that books ARE banned, discuss this problem, and celebrate our right to access and share ideas.

    I don't go out of my way to read books just because they've been banned, but all of my favorite book HAVE been banned. Being banned doesn't equate to quality, but it's interesting to think about what it says about our culture (or the culture of those doing the banning) that we are trying to prevent other people from reading something.

  2. I'm generally surprised to see how many books have been banned and for what reasons, also where they've been banned though sometimes I'm a bit hazy about what that actually means. I'm assuming banned by a school district somewhere in America doesn't mean unavailable in the way I imagine 'The Satanic Verses' might be in some parts of the world. On the whole though I find I'm fairly indifferent to whether a book has been banned or not in its past, it doesn't make me more likely to read it now (I always imagine people being really disappointed when they finally got Lady Chatterley's Lover or Ulysses if what they were after was filth) though that might be different if the book was still being withheld from me. In the end we're lucky to live in a country where censorship isn't a real issue, I'm suddenly feeling fairly privileged to have the choice to read Dan Brown (and I never thought I'd say that...)

    1. You are right about the ridiculous bans that are promulgated in certain school districts in the US. Stupid, but still available to the general public. Isn't there a ban in the UK about certain treatments of the Royal Family? Or is that just in the press? Or have those conventions gone away entirely?

  3. There's a cache of lists about banned books that people know about but not me. How do people get this information? (well, internet, I don't doubt). The only time I've come up against banning was a French novel about a pedophile that I needed to read for research. It was a recently published book that a childrens' organization had managed ot get banned after a burst of publicity that saw the author barricaded in his own home against protesters. Well I finally got hold of a copy and read it and wondered whether anyone else actually had. It certainly committed any number of crimes against good literature but I couldn't see it constituted a threat to society, as it was neither plausible nor persuasive. The pedophile ended up on a reality TV show that recreated the conditions in space for the trapped contestants and then after that he kidnapped a boy scout and strapped explosives to him. I've never read a more ludicrous book, and there have been a fair few contenders for that prize. It did leave me feeling that banning books was rarely a properly sensible decision, but came from a knee-jerk reaction that needed more attention paid to it, really, than the book in question.

  4. Jane archivist.

    I thought Gone With The Wind was banned in Ireland by the Church for ages (that's what my mum told me when I read it aged 16, on bus home from my Catholic school!).
    Why don't you like the Da Vinci Code?
    It was definitely gripping.
    Though I think every single verifiable fact was wrong!
    I was working for the Inner Temple when it was published, and used to have lunch with the genuine Master of the Temple, the nicest, most un-sinister of men, who used to give talks on how nothing described in the book could be seen in the Temple Church (because it wasn't there!).
    I remember a sentence where the main character describes being lost in the labyrinthine tunnels of Temple tube station- which did nearly make me abandon the book, since there are only two platforms and no tunnels at all.

  5. I've had very similar feelings about the celebration of banned books. I think folks get confused about the point and make that all-too-easy step from standing against the act of book banning to standing up for the individual books themselves. We should have the freedom to read books; we should refuse, for our own sakes, to read bad ones. Is it too much to think of it as individualized book bans? I've banned myself from The Da Vinci Code, along with many others that I will not mention.

  6. I agree that any celebration be focused on The Freedom to Read. I don't make it a point to read banned books, except for "Satanic Verses", ( I wanted to know what all the fuss was about). I did end up reading "The Da Vinci Code" and was so disgusted by the lame ending that I threw it across the room, but I wouldn't ban it.
    Perfect Custard


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