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Monday was the beginning of Banned Books Week, the annual celebration of the freedom to read and have access to information. Since the launch of Banned Books Week in 1982, over 11,300 books have been challenged, according to the American Library Association. To mark the occasion, Index on Censorship staff posed with their favourite banned books, and tell why it’s important that they are freely accessible.
David Sewell – Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
“Banned by the Soviet Union for being decadent and despairing and although they’re right in their analysis, the action to ban the book clearly is ludicrous. It’s a Freudian tale of Gregor Samsa who awakes one morning to find he has turned into a human sized bug and how his family react to this turn of events and treat him with revulsion and yes despair, since their main breadwinner is now out of commission. For a book about an insect grubbing about in filth, Kafka’s writing evinces some great beauty as did all his work despite the seam of despair underpinning many of them. Maybe this beauty through despair is what the Soviets meant by ‘decadent’. Kafka was a vital link between the end of the Victorian novel and the literary modernists and the influence of Freud’s ideas increasingly being used in characterisation. That is why ‘Metamorphosis’ is a significant book in the literary canon.”
Aimée Hamilton – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
“Because of its use of profanities, racial slurs and graphically described scenes surrounding sensitive issues like rape, Harper Lee’s award winning novel has been banned in many libraries and schools in the United States over its 54 year history. Having read this beautifully written book at school, I think it should be a freely accessible curriculum staple, to be both enjoyed and admired by all.”
David Coscia – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
“Failing to or not choosing to see the irony, many schools in the United States banned Fahrenheit 451 based on its offensive language and graphic content. Bradbury’s grim view of a future where firemen are not people who put out fires, but instead set them in an attempt to burn books outlawed by the government, acts as a warning against state sponsored censorship, even if it’s not what he intended. Bradbury himself talks about Fahrenheit as a warning that technology would replace literature and cause humanity to become a “quick reading people.” What resonates with me about the novel is how prophetic that turned out to be. In the age of social media and instant information, humans, myself included, have gotten lazy and spend less time enjoying literature.”
Vicky Baker – Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez:
“I picked this after reading how it was banned in Iran in 2007. Initially, it slipped through the censors’ net, as the Persian title had been changed to Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts. It was on its way to becoming a bestseller before the ‘mistake’ was realised and it was whipped from shelves, accused of promoting prostitution. It’s classic tale of censors judging a book by its title.”
Sean Gallagher – American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
“No book, no matter how vilified or disliked, should be out of reach for anyone who wants to read it.”
Jodie Ginsberg – Forever by Judy Blume
“I was one of the first girls in my class to own Judy Blume’s Forever and it was passed clandestinely from classmate to classmate until it finally fell apart, dog-eared (and highlighted in certain places…). It is a book that is powerfully linked in my mind – as for so many young kids – to the transition from childhood into the tricky years of teenage life. Reading it felt shocking, even dangerous. But also liberating.”
David Heinemann – Animal Farm by George Orwell
“It seems to have upset people from all ends of the political spectrum in one way or another at different times but what I love is that the story is actually quite ambiguous if you read it carefully, tearing pieces out of everyone and all angles. For its extraordinary imaginative power, the sheer audacity of its metaphors and it’s sharp alertness to the truths of life I treasure this book, having read it and been reminded of it so many times. I even adapted and staged the thing once, banning it is like depriving life of liquor.”
Fiona Bradley – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“I have chosen Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov because I think it is so deeply disturbing that it deserves to be read. It manages to convey some of the darkest human desires and emotions and these are exactly the kind of things that literature and art should explore. By banning it you are not protecting people but patronising them by refusing their right to judge it for themselves.”
It is an astonishing fact that Zimbabwe, after 20 years of a rule that has starved libraries and schools of books, is full of people who yearn for books, who see them as a key to a better life, and whose attitude is similar to that of people in Europe and the USA up to 50 years ago who read because they agreed with Carlyle’s dictum ‘the real education is a good library’ — and aspired to be educated.
There are libraries and libraries. Some I am involved with would not be recognised as such in more fortunate parts of the world. A certain trust sends boxes of books out to villages which might seem to the illinformed no more than clusters of poor thatched mud huts, but in them may be retired teachers, teachers on holiday, people with three or four years of education who yearn for better. These villages may have no electricity, telephone, running water, but they beg for books from every visitor. Perhaps a hut may be set aside for books, with a couple of shelves in it, or shelves or a trestle may be put under a tree. In a bush village far from any big town, or even a little one, such a trestle with 40 books on it has transformed the life of the area. Instantly study groups appeared, literacy classes — people who can read teaching those who can’t — civic classes and groups of aspirant writers.
A letter from there reads: ‘People cannot live without water. Books are our water and we drink from this spring.’
An enterprising council official in Bulawayo sends out books by donkey car — ‘our travelling library’ — to places where ordinary transport cannot go, because there are no roads, or roads that succumb to dust or mud.
A friend of mine, known to be involved with organisations that supply books, was approached .by two youths in a bush village near Lake Kariba who said, ‘We have built a library, now please give us the books.’
The library was a shelf in a little lean-to of grass and poles, but the books would never succumb to white ants or the book-devouring fish-moth, because they would always be out on loan.
A survey was made in the villages and it turned out that what these book-starved people yearn for are romances, detective stories, poetry, adventures, biography, novels of all kinds, short stories.
Exactly what a survey in this country would reveal — that is, among people who still read.
One problem is that these people do not know what is available that they might like if they tried. The Mayor of Casterbridge was a school set book one year and was read by the adults, and so people ask for books by Hardy.
The most popular book everywhere is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Another that has queues waiting for it is World Tales by Idries Shah, and it is not only the tales themselves, but the scholarly footnotes attached to them which people enjoy. They say of a story, perhaps from the Sudan or the USA, ‘But we have a story just like that.’
One problem is that people, hearing of this book hunger, at once offer to donate their cast-off books. These are not always suitable. Donations would be better. Book Aid International, based in London, sends books out to book-starved countries.
This article was originally published in Index on Censorship magazine, March 1999.