Every year, a week is designated as banned book week. This year it is the week of September 27-October 3. But when did banning books start and who decides what should be banned? To answer this, we have to go back hundreds of years. In ancient Rome, the poet Ovid’s Ars amatoria (Art of Love) was banned, and he was sent into exile because of its lewd content (according to the Emperor Augustus). In the Middle Ages, the Greek poetess Sappho’s works were banned by Pope Gregory VII. During the Renaissance, the priest Savonarola had a bonfire (of the vanities) where he burned paintings and books he said went against the Church. These are just a very small fraction of works that were banned during earlier times, but as you can see they were all banned because someone in power, either in the church or state, decided that the book was unfit for human consumption.
Fast forward to the 20th and 21st centuries and books are still being banned. Mark Twain’s works were banned in his own lifetime and remain on banned book lists today. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been banned since being released over 20 years ago. George Orwell, Anne Frank, John Steinbeck, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Walt Whitman have all been on the banned books list. But who does the banning in the modern world?
The answer is anyone or any group. Schools, churches, government agencies, organizations, and even families have all banned books in the last 100 years. Some reasons include laws, such as the Comstock Law of 1873 that forbids the mailing of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” print materials. Thus, classics by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, the novelist Daniel Defoe, among others were banned from being mailed. Walt Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass was banned in Boston for explicit language. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions was banned by U.S. Customs because it would hurt public morality. In the 1920s, Jack London was banned in Europe, particularly in Italy, for Call of the Wild and in what was known as Yugoslavia for having works that were “too radical.”
Books have been banned for their political or religious content as well. Following World War I, the U. S. War Department removed pacifist books, such as Ambrose Bierce’s Can Such Things Be? and after World War II, Senator Joseph McCarthy pulled Anthologies of American Literature that contained Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience from overseas libraries. The Bible has also been banned over time in numerous countries, including Russia and Saudi Arabia. Variations of Christian ideas have also been banned, such as the Manichaean texts by Diocletian in the Roman Empire and more recently, a woman was convicted in Singapore for having a Jehovah’s Witness version of the Bible.
In addition to banning books for the reasons outlined above, books deemed to promote “hate speech” are now being banned in the West. But as for all of these bans on books, they all come down to censoring ideas from people, and we should ask ourselves, is this a good thing to do? If so, under what circumstances and how do you keep those with the power to ban books from using that power to shut down ideas?