In countries all over the world, since quill pen was first put to papyrus, people of one group or another have been afraid of what others might learn through books. One of the most culturally significant libraries of the ancient world – the Ancient Library of Alexandria – was gone by 400 A.D, destroyed by arson. It caused the loss of a major centre of scholarship and knowledge, as well as countless scrolls and books, gone forever. In more recent years, book burnings in Nazi Germany during the 1930s were commonplace as a means of purging German society of the works of Jewish authors. Revered intellectual and literary names including Marcel Proust, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein amongst them.
If you look at this link you can see a whole raft of contemporary and classic writers and texts which have been banned by different national governments around the world. Some for very spurious reasons indeed, and some as recently as this year!
Courtesy of my Twitter feed, I’ve realised that we are in the middle of ‘banned book week’ in America. It is an awareness-raising campaign designed to promote reading, and highlight to the public the risks of censoring literature and inhibiting the right to read. Run by the ALA – American Library Association – it is actually a pretty long running annual event, having started in the early 1980s.
I don’t wish to stray into debate on political, religious or moral issues, and I can only speak for myself. But in my opinion, freedom to read and learn, and freedom to make independent choices about what we wish to read and learn, should be inseparably interwoven with all the other basic tenets of a free, modern society. I roundly applaud the efforts of the America Library Association to support the right to read without censorship.
When I was completing my undergraduate degree I spent a semester focusing on ‘inter-war literature’ of the 1920s and 1930s. It is the semester I found most fulfilling, covering novels by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Green, Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and more. I also got the opportunity to read Christopher Isherwood. His Berlin novels explore the themes of sexuality and homosexuality in light of the tense and changing social and political times. I was fascinated by Isherwood’s bravery – as both a writer and a gay man himself – in a society that was still very uncomfortable with the subjects of homosexuality and sexuality generally. Reading Isherwood also led me to other writers addressing homosexuality in literature, in particular E.M Forster and Oscar Wilde.
Irish writer and poet, Oscar Wilde died four years before Isherwood was even born. He was a controversial man in his time and later became a gay icon of the 20th century. The Picture of Dorian Gray was his only novel. Before it was ever published, and without Wilde’s knowledge and consent, the editors – concerned that it was indecent – deleted 500 words from the novel. Even after the redaction, the novel caused a considerable furore, as it was still too bold for British moral and sexual sensibilities of the day.
Although still a clearly sensual and hedonistic novel, it no longer shocks in the way it once did. Society has moved on, in the main. Widely read and loved, it quite rightly deserves its place as a modern British classic. You might say it is iridescent, shining alongside other banned or contended British novels such as DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, James Joyce’s Ulysses and George Orwell’s 1984.
- shining or glittering with rainbow colours
- shining with many different colors when seen from different angles
- producing a display of lustrous, rainbow-like colours
- brilliant, lustrous, or colourful in effect or appearance
- displaying a spectrum of colours that shimmer and change due to interference and scattering as the observer’s position changes
- displaying a play of lustrous changing colours like those of the rainbow.
- having or exhibiting iridescence
Derivation: Latin iris, irid ‘rainbow’ and -escent. First known use: 1796.
“To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies.” […] “Yes,” he continued, “that is one of the great secrets of life. Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” …
… He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and philosophy herself became young […] It was an extraordinary improvisation. He felt that the eyes of Dorian Gray were fixed on him, and the consciousness that amongst his audience there was one whose temperament he wished to fascinate seemed to give his wit keenness and to lend colour to his imagination. He was brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible. He charmed his listeners out of themselves, and they followed his pipe, laughing. Dorian Gray never took his gaze off him, but sat like one under a spell, smiles chasing each other over his lips and wonder growing grave in his darkening eyes.
(Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray)
With the vanity of youth and good looks, Dorian Gray is mesmerised by Lord Henry Wotton and his argument that, if it is to be lived at all, it must be decadent, hedonistic, and focused on beauty and sensual fulfilment. The realisation that his own beauty will ultimately fade leads Dorian to sell his soul. The exchange ensures that his own beauty lasts eternally, whilst a painting of him degenerates and sullies, reflecting Dorian Gray’s ever more debauched behaviour over the years. Of course, such an exchange does not come with a happily ever after ending, and the novel is dark and deeply melancholic in the way Wilde writes of life and all its’ despairs and disappointments. It is a novel that is rich in themes and motifs addressing the social and moral value system and behaviours of its time.
And it is the social and moral values of some sections of society that continue to try to control the wider majority, even today. Just one part of that control comes through censorship of written material and the banning of books. According to the ALA website, in the first decade of the 21st Century there were 5,099 challenges reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom:
- 1,577 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
- 1,291 challenges due to “offensive language”;
- 989 challenges due to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”;
- 619 challenged due to “violence”‘ and
- 361 challenges due to “homosexuality.”
Following these lines, the ALA website also lists some incredible and very well-known banned and challenged classic novels. To give just a few examples:
- The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
- The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
- Ulysses, by James Joyce
- Beloved, by Toni Morrison
- The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
- 1984, by George Orwell
- Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
- Of Mice and Men,by John Steinbeck
- Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
- Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
- Animal Farm, by George Orwell
- As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
- A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
I was shocked at the breadth of writers and subjects touched by such censorship. I am proud to say that I have read nearly all of those in the list above, and I have taken something from each of them. They have helped to shape me as a reader, a thinker, a person.
It would be a tragedy if book banning caused a generation of readers – now or ever – to miss the opportunity to appreciate, and form their own opinions about, such truly exceptional writers and their works.
I am not a rebel or a trouble maker. Not by any means! And I will do almost anything to avoid an argument! But I really have a problem with book censorship. Great reads – even just mediocre reads – can touch us. Help us shape an emotion, teach us something, leave us with a beautiful word or phrase. There are books that are not to my taste, of course. With some books I struggle to understand why anyone else would or should ever want to read them! But I don’t think that is for me to tell them that they must not! And I don’t think it is for anyone else to, either.
And I guess that is the whole point of Banned Book Week. If you are intrigued, links for relevant American and British sites are given below:
Whatever you are reading this week, wherever you are reading it, maybe just spare a passing thought on the importance of liberty. Freedom of expression by writers, freedom of choice by readers. Without it our worldview – collectively and individually – would be far flatter and duller. And I don’t know about you, but personally I like our world and our literary heritage in all its richly iridescent glory.