This week is Banned Books Week. It should come as no surprise that the topics of censorship, banned books and cancelled authors are a regular theme of discussion at Index on Censorship. In fact we are the UK partner of the global coalition against banned books. The banning of books has repeatedly proven to be a key tool in the arsenal of tyrants and repressive regimes. Control of information and the need for one dominant narrative always leads despots to ban and even burn books. It’s been true throughout history and as much as that concerns me (and it does – a lot) – what worries me more is how pervasive the banning of books is becoming across more democratic countries and what that means for enlightened societies and their peoples.
I truly struggle to comprehend the rationale behind the banning of a specific text or author.
Words can be challenging, thought-provoking and yes, of course, they can even be hateful and inciting. But the answer, surely, is to argue back, to find different authors, to debate and win an argument – not to ban, not to cancel and definitely not to remove from the shelves of our libraries.
The editor in chief of Index, Jemimah Steinfeld, asked the team to write about their favourite banned books as part of the campaign. And as you will have seen I wrote about Judy Blume, one of my favourite authors as a child, I find it ludicrous that anyone would seek to ban books which help young people come to understand their own sexuality or their personal relationships with faith.
But I could have written about a dozen other authors whose words have shaped my worldview but yet inspired such hate and fear that others have sought to ban them. The works of George Orwell were key to helping me develop my own politics – 1984 and Animal Farm confirmed my lifelong commitment to social democratic politics and inspired my personal political campaigns against those on the extremes. Yet these works have been banned repeatedly and not just in repressive regimes but also in some US school districts, unbelievably for being pro-Communist (it really would help if people read the books before they sought to ban them…)
And as a Jewish European woman my politics are grounded, for better or worse, in understanding the horrors of the Shoah. As a student of history I, of course, believe that we must understand our history so that we aren’t destined to repeat it. So the banning of Anne Frank’s diary and the graphic novel Maus by Art Spielgelman, is completely beyond my comprehension. The crucial importance of both of these books isn’t just the subject matter – but the fact that they bring the horrors of a very dark period of our history to life in a format which is accessible to all – including young people. What is there to ban? Unless your real goal is to rewrite Jewish and European history?
Books are the light, they drive challenge and change. They feed our minds and ensure that societies move on and develop. They educate, inform and entertain, even when they are wrong. There are books that I have considered to be of no value, books which I have considered to contain dangerous views and books which I consider to be hateful. But there is no book so dangerous that I don’t think it should be available in an academic library, available to study.
And if you believe on freedom of speech – then that’s the least you should believe too.