Saturday, May 21, 2022

A Brief Book Banning History Lesson




Last Wednesday, I had the great honor of participating on a ZOOM panel sponsored by Democrats Abroad Greece (DAGR) addressing the current surge in book banning. Moderated by former US diplomat and author John Brady Kiesling, the panelists included a MacArthur Award-winning poet (Alicia Stallings), the Poet Laureate of Missouri (Aliki Barnstone), a former DJ with a doctorate from Oxford and a reputation for gifted presentations (Abby Hafer), and a kid from Pittsburgh.


This is essentially what the hindmost had to say on banning books:


To put things into perspective, let’s first look at some of the books banned in America.


The most banned book of 2021, and thus far into 2022, is Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe (a memoir about coming out as non-binary).


The (arguably) top ten most banned classics of all time (listed 1 to 10):


1984, by George Orwell (social & political themes, sexual content, pro-communism)


Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (racist, coarse, trashy, inelegant, irreligious, obsolete, inaccurate, and mindless)


The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (foul language)


The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (sexual content, violence and abuse)


The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (language and sexual references)


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (explicit portrayal rape and other sexual abuse)


The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding (racial profanity, implies man little more than an animal)


Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (violence, racism and treatment of women)


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey (glorifies criminal activity, tendency to corrupt juveniles, contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination.)


To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (profanity and racial content)


Examples of other banned books:


Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway (as a sex novel, and in Italy because of its painfully accurate portrayal of a Fascist retreat)


Call of the Wild, by Jack London (violence, vulgar language, sex)


Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman (sexually charged poems)


The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling (promoted witchcraft)


A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khalid Hosseini (violence and abuse upon women in Afghanistan)


The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (vulgarity, sexual overtones, LGBTQ themes, offending Christians)


George, by Alex Gino (involvement of transgender child, encourages children to change their bodies with hormones)


The Holy Bible (violates Church & State to buy for schools with public funds, sexual content)


To me, the essence of what’s behind book banning is abject fear on the part of those advocating for a ban that their ideas are too weak to stand up to whatever is written in what they seek to ban. 


When you look at any modern list of banned books, literary merit is rarely an issue.  Perhaps that’s what frightens book banners the most.  They fear they can’t succeed in a reasoned debate over substance, so instead they seek to deny their opposition the opportunity of competing for the hearts and minds of the constituency at issue.


The left sees book banning as cover for hate.


The right sees book banning as a righteous rebellion against times and attitudes different from the way they want them to be.


Book banning is not new, but what makes the current situation so threatening is that those seeking to obtain or maintain political power have seized upon broad-based, well-financed, book banning efforts utilizing extremist buzzwords as the means for galvanizing political support among an already deeply divided electorate. It has nothing to do with the substance of the books and everything to do with gathering support for deeper societal and political agendas.


It’s as simple–or complicated–as that. 


Book banning per se didn’t get truly underway until after the invention of the Gutenberg commercial printing press in 1440. Although the Chinee had their own method of printing as early as 868 BCE, the preferred method of dealing with the limited supply of written materials deemed offensive or threatening to the powers-that-be, was to burn them. 


Johann Guttenburg

For example, early in the 3rd Century BCE, the new Chinese emperor ordered the destruction of all books that could serve to compare him to more successful or virtuous rulers of the past.


Throughout history conquerors burned libraries as a means of undermining a conquered people’s society, and European rulers sought to protect their own societies by ordering the destruction works that threatened to spread foreign customs.


Burning of the Library of Alexandra

And of course, differing religious beliefs drove book burnings. Most notably, perhaps, in 1240 in what’s known as the Disputation of Paris, when a challenge brought before the court of King Louis IX by the Catholic Church over how it claimed Jesus was portrayed in Jewish writings led to the destruction of 10,000 volumes of Hebrew manuscripts.


In America, the first actual book banning took place in Massachusetts in 1637 when a man named Thomas Morton published “New English Canaan,” lampooning the Puritans for many things, including their treatment of native peoples. Copies that could be found were destroyed, and those that weren’t were banned. Today it’s considered a classic of Colonial American history and literature.


Arrest of Thomas Morton

But whether the motivation be differing political or religious agendas, the driving force behind attacking a book is to eliminate alternative narratives from the official line and in so doing, control the dialogue.


Authoritarian types have long recognized the danger books posed to their view of the world, for books encourage people to change their way of thinking.  Thus, Hitler burned books, so did Mao Zedong.


But in modern times, with so many formats available, book burning has fallen out of fashion, to be replaced by book banning and the like.  In America, what once involved arguments made at the local level before school boards, libraries, and PTAs, are today the subject of well-financed legislative efforts.


Today there certainly are subjects one would think merit a ban, but where does one draw the line? For example, you’d think instructions on how to blow up a building, or to properly use an AR-15 to take down the maximum number of targets in the minimum amount of time merit bans—unless of course you’re in the business of razing buildings (that’s with a “z”) or are a combat soldier training to defend your country. 


There always will be examples to serve all sides of any argument on the merit of banning books, but in these days of readily available on-line how-to videos on virtually any topic, what’s gained by going after books, except political publicity for the banners and mega-buy-this-book publicity for authors and publishers.


I see no reason to ban any book. If one crosses the line to where civil and criminal laws apply, I say prosecute, because no matter the writer’s literary purpose, the consequences remain the writer’s and the publisher’s to bear…whether the book is banned or not.


My bottom line is simple: I believe books do far more to combat the bad, than undermine the good.


And by the way, considering the likely Streisand Effect* on sales of a banned book, please feel free to BAN MY BOOKS.




* A phenomenon that occurs when an attempt to hide, remove, or censor information has the unintended consequence of increasing awareness of that information.



  1. Great piece, Jeff! I'm surprised DH Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" didn't make the cut for the list.
    The best fiction I have read illustrating what you are saying was Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451".

    1. Thanks Michael.

      "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was banned in the US in 1929--which I might point out (were I flippant) was soon followed by The Great Depression.

      Fahrenheit 451 was published and first banned in the 1950s, in an ironic nod to the central role censorship plays in the book.

      As for how I came up with the top ten list, I borrowed it from a list published by Butler University of the books in its library most commonly appearing on banned book lists.

  2. Needless to say, many books were banned in South Africa during apartheid, including the wonderful Kramer and Zondi series by James McClure - recently re-issued by Soho. Although I've never been able to verify that it is true, it is commonly stated in South Africa that Black Beauty was also banned by the apartheid government.

    1. Hm, although it's a wonderful jab at apartheid censors to say they banned Black Beauty simply based on its title, I've read where others wonder why Disney never made a movie based upon Sewell's blockbuster novel?

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  3. Hard to add much to your wonderful essay. The invention and spread of modern printing presses certainly made it far more difficult to totally eradicate ANY given book, and electronic distribution is accelerating that difficulty for the banners. Anyone attempting to ban anything is, as you point out, merely providing free advertising and advertising their ... well, who they are. 'Nuff said.

    1. Thanks, EvKa. I understand that "Banned Book Clubs" are on the rise in schools and libraries. Don't you just love the improvisational skills of the young and the rebellious?

  4. So glad you found it necessary to write an essay on book banning. It is shocking but it has also created a need to read these books and have them in your personal library. Classics in every sense of the word, I plan on reading them all over again. Great piece dear Jeff!

    1. Bravo, Anonymous. The best way to deal with book banners is just what you're doing!

  5. Great subject, Bro! I joined Penn international specifically because they fight Censorship. Just last week, at the Strand book shop, I joined in conversation with a group of women standing around the table in the middle of the shop that displayed banned books. We all agreed and each of us bought at least one book off the table for the simple joy of fighting the whole notion of banning books. The one I chose was “Charlotte‘s Web!” A sign on the table said that it had been banned in certain places, because portraying animals who can talk is sacrilegious. . I went to Catholic school for 17 years. I learned a lot about what was and what was not a sin. Nowhere in that educational experience did anybody even jokingly suggest that a book for children in which animals talked would be a sin to read. I’m keeping Charlotte‘s Web on display in my apartment so that I can take it up as a subject of conversation. Thank you, Bro, for this cogent discussion of such an important topic.

    1. Thanks, Sis. You and Barbara share a deep appreciation of "Charlotte's Web." She gives a copy to every grandchild. Now if only I could get her to agree with your tying me and "cogent discussion" together in sentence. :) xx

    2. Note to self: Read Charlotte's Web, which I have never read.
      I hate book banning. Many banned books deal with racism, anti-Semitism and other bigotry and also women's roles. I think the right wing wants to roll back social changes to the 1950s before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Movement and bills, before the women's movement and before the LGBTQ movement. They want to stifle children's thinking and broadening their perspective.
      I remember I read everything, even books I didn't quite understand yet. But I wouldn't read a book with even a smidgen of bigotry in it. Gave up on an Agatha Christie book when I came to a page with a racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic description of an immigrant. Never read anything by her again. Bu that's me.
      Two books that expanded my thinking were "The Jungle," by Upton Sinclair (gave up eating meat for awhile); "The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck and "Beloved," by Toni Morrison. The last two were on banned books lists for years, even though they were formative for me.
      And Morrison did win the Pulitzer for that amazing book.
      The one book my father didn't want me to read because it was "trash." I was 15 and he hadn't figured out the strategy of dealing with a teenager. The next day I borrowed the book, read it and came to the same conclusion, but with reasons. So I think let people read whatever they want, have discussions, answer questions. I do think some books are age inappropriate, but they can be read a few years later. But for schools, let reading fly and discuss the books. If a family has strong values and discusses books openly, it might expand their minds. Books are how we learn about different countries, cultures, people. And, frankly, banning books makes teenagers want to get a hold of the forbidden fruit, as I did. And I'm so glad teenagers and librarians are fighting back in their own ways.

    3. Kathy D, you had very wise parents. As for the book your father described as "trash" and you later confirmed that for yourself, were the author's initials by chance GM?

  6. Yes. How did you guess? Well, you had teenagers, too. But the thing is to tell a teen not to do something is a bit of a challenge. But that I read it anyway and had an analysis of why it was trash was better for me. I knew a book about hopeless, alienated, angry people with no ethics or respect for anyone, leading degenerate lives was "trash." I then ignored my friends' book choices mostly, and went back to my father's selections. Or found Steinbeck, Dreiser, Maugham, Cronin and some mystery writers. And I read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which led me to give up meat for months. I talked to a woman bookseller about that book, and she said she read it at 12 and gave up eating meet permanently. Also, note to parents: Reasons are important. Edicts don't work.
    But mainly, discuss books, ideas, characters, period of time, country. Expand thinking.
    So many books have left permanent impressions on me.

    1. We are what we read...which for most of us, is better than being what we eat. :) As for my guessing the author (and book) it simply jumped out at me as the one it had to be...for all the "mainstream" attention it received as the tantalizer (and titillater) blockbuster of our generation.

  7. It was trash. Don't know why my teen friends were attracted to it. But then again they didn't read what I was reading. Later in high school, I found people who read good books. I still think that if you are grounded with good ethics and values and a noncynical view of the world, and open to ideas, that you can read and think and maintain your moral compass.

    1. I'm a big believe in not allowing your unique center (moral compass) to drift away from its natural center (true north). It's how to retain your values in a world offering so many tempting diversions from what truly makes you tick.