This week is Banned Books Week, a free-speech campaign founded by librarians and publishers to call attention to the ongoing problem of censorship. Although we’ve come a long way since the days when Anthony Comstock got James Joyce’s Ulysses outlawed and prosecuted Margaret Sanger for mailing pamphlets on birth control, librarians and schoolteachers still face legal and political pressure to remove books that annoy cranky, censorious malcontents. And in some corners of the world, things are considerably worse, as Amnesty International reminds us with its international list of authors who’ve been imprisoned, tortured or murdered for their writings.
Now, I wish I could say that being included on a banned-books list is a sure sign that a book is a literary classic, or at least a fiery and exciting tome of heresy, but that’s not strictly true. After all, the Catholic church’s Index of Forbidden Books includes both works whose fame is imperishable – like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – as well as those that are less so – like Antonius Fabricius-Bleynianus’ sadly forgotten 1621 bestseller, In theoriam et praxim beneficiorum ecclesiasticorum methodica et familiaris introductio.
But I will say that the inclusion of any book on a list of books that have banned, proscribed or otherwise challenged makes me more likely to read it than I otherwise would have been. In part, it’s just to spite the censors: I want to make censorship a less successful and therefore less common tactic, and the best way to do that is to put would-be censors on notice that their efforts will backfire and make the books that they try to stamp out more popular and more widely read. But it’s also simple stubborn curiosity: If someone doesn’t want me to read a certain book, I want to find out why! I want to see for myself whatever knowledge was deemed too shattering for my fallible human mind to safely contain. (I realize this personality trait would ensure a short life for me in the Cthulhu Mythos universe.)
And while not every book in the censors’ crosshairs is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, you could do worse than to use that as your starting point. Just look at the honorees on the ALA’s list of most-challenged books of the last decade, or this similar list from the U.K.: the Harry Potter series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale… you could while away many a happy afternoon reading just the books on these lists!
I encourage the wannabe censors to have a press conference, with bullhorns and flashbulbs, where they work themselves into a sweaty, ranting frenzy about the danger my books represent and how vital it is that they be kept out of the hands of the young and impressionable. Ideally, they’d also read some of the most sacrilegious and titillating passages out loud – to make sure everyone present knows just how dangerous they are. If they wanted to buy, say, a thousand of them and burn them in public – like that unpleasant fellow down in Florida who was arrested with a truckload of kerosene-soaked Qur’ans – so much the better.
No matter what makes your puritanical instincts tingle, I’ve got something for you. If you’re disturbed by tightly reasoned, dangerously persuasive philosophical tracts arguing against the existence of God, well, look no further than Daylight Atheism (the book, not the blog you’re currently reading).
Or perhaps your censor’s tastes run more to fiction. And why not? Like a sharp blade swathed in velvet, everyone knows that heresy is that much more seductive when the moral is concealed in a rousing good story that will lure in the unwary. If so, you’ll surely want to outlaw my first novel, Dark Heart, which is set in a fantasy realm where mortals overthrew the elder gods, whose jealous, brawling and corrupt natures proved them unworthy to reign over the world they created.
If you ban my books, I promise to play my part by denouncing you as a priggish, blue-nosed coward who’s afraid of the truth and thinks he has the right to prevent others from saying anything he doesn’t like. Since most would-be censors paradoxically thrive on claims of martyrdom, I’m sure this is what you want as well, and thus I’m confident that we can come to a mutually beneficial agreement. Please, thank you, and good day.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons