I have recently been researching the most banned books in American libraries. In many cases the reasons for said bans have been absurd and farcical. Nevertheless, despite laughing at such idiocy, I always choke on my laughter, as the only sensible way to feel about such censorship is to find it bone-chilling in the extreme.
In these days where the professionally offended proclaim their gospel of boycotting, censorial folly all over social media, it is more vitally important than ever to stand against the banning of books. Yes, some of these people are well-intended; thinking to protect sensitive souls from racism, sexism or the like, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The chilling effect on free speech at present is horrifying enough, without turning to George Orwell’s 1984 for apparent inspiration as to how to treat controversial texts. That novel is a cautionary tale, not a handbook for how to run the world. These days, the thought police are all too real.
Here then are some of the most banned titles in America, most of which I like a great deal: The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini), Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger), the Goosebumps series (RL Stine), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), Tintin in the Congo (Herge) the His Dark Materials trilogy (Phillip Pullman), Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), and the Harry Potter series (JK Rowling).
To look at a few examples, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird were recently banned in a Virginia library for “racist language”. You’d have thought anyone would understand the anti-racist message of both novels, but sadly it seems some people can’t understand the difference between depicting something and endorsing something.
Tintin in the Congo is an interesting one, as there can be no doubt the book contains many racist stereotypes and outdated colonial attitudes. Herge himself referred to this volume as “the sins of youth” and his later work acted very much as a corrective. I can’t speak for American editions, but my copy of this Tintin adventure contains a preface from the publisher explaining the historic context and that some sequences may be offensive to readers. Such an introduction is right and proper to the complete and uncensored version of the book, and allows the readers to judge accordingly, rather than have the volume patronisingly withheld from them in case it turns them into raving racists.
The reason for the Goosebumps ban is that they are apparently too frightening for the children they are aimed at. Absolute rubbish. Children love being scared. The Goosebumps novels have been a regular fixture in my eight-year-olds reading life for well over a year now. There is nothing he enjoys more than a good macabre thrill, and why shouldn’t he? Restricting such material for children is, I believe, deeply unhealthy. They should be allowed the catharsis of a good scare.
On another note, I still find it transparently absurd that Christians object to the Harry Potter books. Any intelligent reading of them can only lead to a conclusion that they are the product of a Judeo-Christian culture, with the final novel in particular full of Biblical parallels. Yet I often come across believers who are convinced that JK Rowling is a witch (she isn’t), that the spells in the novel are real (they aren’t, as is obvious to anyone who understands cod-Latin jokes), and that the novels are somehow causing children to turn to the Church of Satan in droves (again, unsubstantiated nonsense).
Then again, the power of the written word can be dangerous, and I’d be a fool to state otherwise. Perhaps some deluded individuals really have joined Satanism after reading Harry Potter as a child. Hitler swayed many with Mein Kampf during the rise of Nazi Germany. Most damningly of all, the Bible has been twisted and perverted for hundreds of years to justify everything from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan. Should we ban the Bible?
The pen may well be mightier than the sword, but banning books is not the answer. Instead these texts should be discussed, appraised, criticised, if necessary given curated introductions to explain historic context, and above all made available for readers to make up their own minds.