Editorials, Opinion

The fear of books has a long history

Book banning and burning is nearly as old as civilization itself — with evidence of manuscripts being burned dating back to the B.C.s — and is often done for the same reasons: politics, religion and “morality” (in quotes because its definition is so subjective).

In 200s B.C., Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti is said to have killed scholars so he could control the historical record and burned nearly all the kingdom’s books so the empire’s history would start with him. In the 1500s, when conquistadors invaded Mexico, they burned manuscripts, thereby destroying Aztec history and culture and making the Aztecs easier to conquer.

In the early A.D.s, successive waves of Christian and Muslim rulers destroyed large swaths of the legendary Library of Alexandria for religious reasons. After centuries of informal censorship, in the late 1550s, Pope Paul IV established the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of literature forbidden to Catholics; it was still updated and published until 1966.

In 1637, Thomas Morton’s “New English Canaan” became America’s first banned book when Massachusetts’ Puritan government banned it for being “heretical” and too critical of Puritan power structures. Before the Civil War, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was removed from shelves in the U.S. South for stoking abolitionist sentiment.

In Nazi Germany, books written by Jewish authors, detractors and anyone deemed “other” by the regime, as well as books supporting LGBTQ+ people, were burned in massive bonfires in an attempt to erase not only the ideas contained within, but the writers themselves. And that was only the start.

In the Western world, particularly the U.S., book bans for “profanity,” “obscenity” or “immorality” only increased through the 1900s and 2000s: the works of John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Jodi Picoult, Stephen King, Sherman Alexie, John Green, Stephen Chbosky and Judy Blume.

In the last couple years, challenges and bans for specific authors and books have increased faster than ever, and they primarily target anything that references race or the LGBTQ+ community. In too many places, new laws   empower political groups or even a single individual to have dozens of books removed from school libraries and classrooms, as well as public libraries. Mark Twain summed up the audacity of book banning: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

Today is the first day of Banned Books Week. First celebrated in 1982, Banned Books Week “highlights the value of free and open access to information and brings together the entire book community … in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas,” according to BannedBooksWeek.org.

In honor of Banned Books Week, we share these two quotes:

“Read whatever they’re trying to keep out of your eyes and your brain, because that’s exactly what you need to know.” — Stephen King

“Torch every book. Burn every page. Char every word to ash. Ideas are incombustible. And therein lies your real fear.” — Ellen Hopkins