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Did you know that the week straddling September and October is Banned Books Week?

It’s not a new thing — it got its beginnings way back in 1982, the brainchild of Judith Krug, librarian and renowned proponent of intellectual freedoms. During her career, Krug was unfalteringly passionate about educating the public about their rights to free access of all expressions and ideas, and in helping to found Banned Books Week, Krug hoped not only to assist in raising awareness about censorship and the fragility of oft taken for granted freedoms, but also to celebrate the rights of individuals to pick and choose their own reading materials — banned, challenged, or otherwise.


Like most things taken only on face value, Banned Books Week might seem to some people as just being a bit of fun. But in actuality — and disturbingly, in a time where bringing awareness to censorship is vital, lest the progress of the last decades be rescinded, just because the threat doesn’t seem real (it is) — Banned Books Week remains a crucially important social awareness campaign.

Historically, banned and challenged literature has not only been nefarious reads that you might never have heard of. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most famed, celebrated, and infamous authors in the world were once subject to banning or remain so still.

Take Henry Miller, for example. Now, it should come as a surprise to no one that Miller’s sensual lit has long been the subject of particularly lively public debate. Miller’s books scared people — the raw, unfiltered energy of them was new to many, and as we know, not everyone enjoys new things. Many of his books were banned both inside and outside of the US, but Tropic of Cancer was debatably his most controversial. 

Readers in the UK could only get their hands on copies of Tropic of Cancer which had been smuggled in from France — initially the only place the book was published — and in Canada, police raided bookstores and libraries across the country and seized as many copies of the book as they could find.

The reasons given for the ban — pornographic and obscene — were quite predictable, if you know anything much about Miller. But the ire of the outraged few was best captured, I think, by Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno. He wrote that Tropic of Cancer was “…not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity…” So, I think we can safely assume he wasn’t a fan.

Sex, though, isn’t the only subject that’ll make people want to ban a book. Nonsense will do it, too. And by nonsense, I mean Literary Nonsense — like Lewis Carroll’s masterwork Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example. 

Unlike the perceived depravity of Miller’s work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned by General Ho Chien in the Hunan Province of China for a particularly curious reason — that the book might teach children to treat animals on the same level as humans. (A similar excuse was used in the US against Charlotte's Web and Winnie the Pooh.)

Also disapproved of by heavy-handed censors, and again unsurprisingly, is drugs. 

Aldous Huxley, the English writer, philosopher, humanist, satirist, and pacifist, drew almost as much controversy and intrigue personally as he did with his writings. A brilliant man who was absolutely unafraid of the unknown, Huxley’s Brave New World was, at the time of its publishing in 1932, regarded by many with a heavy dose of wariness. 

The book was banned all over the place and for varying reasons — Ireland banned it because of language and for being apparently anti-religion, anti-family, and altogether blasphemous, while American’s didn’t like all of the supposed “negative activity” that goes on. India and Australia banned it as well, though, bolstered by a never-waning interest in the novel, it only stayed so in Australia for five years.

Lolita is another book that was predictably controversial in its day. Considered obscene (a favourite word of would be censors), the novel was banned in many countries. The book was originally released by Paris-based publishing house Olympia Press, who were also behind many other notable, and controversial, works, such as Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy.

More traditional classics haven’t escaped censure, either. Ulysses — the 250,00-odd word tome of Irish author James Joyce — courted its fair share of controversy way back when.

From 1914 to 1921, Ulysses — which had, at the time, already been banned in the UK —  was serialised in the American literary magazine, The Little Review. After the printing of a particularly sordid passage — which included some heavily-veiled references to masturbation — the editors of the magazine were taken to trial over the publishing of what was then considered to be obscene material. (No harm, no great foul — each of the editors was eventually fined $50.)

More recent misadventures in censorship — as in, just a few years ago — include the raiding of a bookstore in Adelaide, Australia, which was selling un-shrink-wrapped copies of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Why? Well, American Psycho is technically classified as R-18. That means that no one in Australia under the age of 18 can legally purchase (or be unwittingly exposed to) the book, and as well as that, it remains banned, theoretically at least, in the state of Queensland. 

Australia, though, has a bit of a bonkers track record when it comes to the senseless censorship of literature. Other titles to have graced the country’s once-banned books list include Oscar Wilde’s The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer’s An American Dream, The Catcher in the Rye, and even good old Bond (Bond, James Bond) got a look in with The Spy Who Loved Me. 

You could, of course, be forgiven at this point for thinking that we’re all just a bunch of prudes and that that’s pretty much the basis of reasoning as far as the censoring of readership is concerned — but, you’d be wrong. As it happens, people also get quite offended by politics and religion (who’d’ve thought?). 

A recent example of such uppityness is the banning of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in Lebanon — it was deemed as being offensive to Christianity — and a not-so-recent example would be the ban to end all bans suffered by the priest and theologian Arius, in and around 325 CE.

In consulting our Socrates, we know that even before the incidents which lead to his eventual banning then exile then death, Arius was already rather a controversial fellow. But, the basis of the conflict as a whole is a complicated tangle of theological divergences relating to the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God, and how that relationship was understood under the dominating doctrine of the time. 

It’s obviously far more complicated even than just that, but in any case, the first wave of Arius’ controversies resulted in his being deposed from office, excommunicated, and exiled.

There was a council held after the fact — The Council of Nicaea — and by all accounts, it wasn’t the most civilised affair. We think that one bishop got a little hot under the collar and struck Arius across the face, which in turn annoyed another guy, Eusebius, who then decided to relieve himself on the robe of said bishop. In any case, after the meeting of the council, Arius and his supporters were deposed and again sentenced to exile, with the Emperor Constantine declaring that all of Arius’ writings were to be burned.

Arius died before he could ever return from exile, probably by assassination if Socrates’ account of the grisly situation is anything to go by, and his writings — the ones that weren’t incinerated, that is — were banned by the Catholic Church for more than a thousand years.

So, dear bibliophiles, the moral of the story is this — we’re incredibly lucky to enjoy the liberties that we do, of free speech, free thinking, and free expression. It is a freedom that is far from being extended to all, and so we shouldn’t ever take it for granted. We need to protect it, and our right to celebrate revolutionary thought. 

Go on and enjoy your Green Eggs and Ham, your Frankenstein, or your Decameron. Get around to reading The Grapes of Wrath, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Constant Sinner, or Madame Bovary. Make the most of your books, banned, challenged, or otherwise. 


Words | Erin Stobie
(an earlier version of this article first appeared on Outlet Magazine in 2015)

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