Culture for Dummies: An Introduction to Banned Books

Salman Rushdie once said, speaking shortly after his Satanic Verses was burnt and banned across the globe, that “free speech is the whole thing, the ball game. Free speech is life itself.” But is censorship the death of books?

It is difficult to find a country that has not, at one time or another, ripped a book from shelves nationwide. Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland and Anne Frank: their stories have all been censored.

 Anne can still not be read in Lebanon – she’s too Zionist for Hezbollah. Whilst Potter’s magic threatens the straight laced American bible-bashers. 

However, in Mr Rushdie’s words, “free speech is life itself” – often a book’s life is grown and championed by the pursuit of freedom. Take Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. Tried for obscenity in 1957 it became an infamous illustration of the Beat Generation, the buzzword and was found ‘not guilty’ on the basis of its social significance. 

Unsurprisingly, more often than not the books that are censored are those that challenge and shock – they are religious, political or over sexualised: Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale: with their sexualised young girls, violence or overt religious criticism. We can perhaps see where the conservative censors might be coming from. 

But what of poor Alice? In 1931, Carroll’s Alice was banned in Hunan, China due to its portrayal of animals as having the same complexity as humans – this was considered insulting to humans and could have the disastrous consequence of children seeing humans and animals as on the same level. 

Perhaps it is fitting to turn to the words of Ezra Pound to consider why censors matter – and not just in terms of free speech: “Literature is news that stays news”; the writer always wants to shock, excite and not conform – featuring on a ‘censored’ list is not a failure but a triumph. 

Sarah Shapcott