Does book banning ever really work?

book burning

1817 book burning in Wartburg, Germany. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

About a week or two ago, I read an article that described some commonly banned books and was surprised to find quite a few classics I’ve enjoyed on the list. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was one of them, while others were Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I understand adults’ needs to protect their children’s innocence for as long as possible, but I often think it backfires. When students hear that others banned certain novels from their school library or community library, it tends to make them more curious about what the book contains. They’ll find that book somehow, somewhere, and read it anyway.

Some governments have tried to ban books and the thoughts expressed in them by having public bonfires and throwing the books onto the bonfires. In May 1933, for example, German university students and soldiers gathered at Berlin’s Opera Square to burn books containing “un-German” ideas. Some of the books were written by Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, H.G. Wells and Ernest Hemingway. (I wonder if anybody noted the title of one of those banned books, got a copy and read it in secret, at home?)

Censorship and the reasons given for banning certain books reveal quite a bit about whoever wants the books banned in the first place. Some conservative people seek to monitor what their children see or they could be government officials wanting to control what and how their citizens think.

In the end, attempting to harness people’s thoughts is like handling water during a flood. You can try to control it but it has a way of going wherever the heck it pleases.

I don’t like to see the destruction of books. Although I may or may not personally like the book, what’s the point of having all that hard work go to waste? I don’t mind if someone recycles old books for a creative purpose such as sculptural art.

In any case, some authors popular among teens today deal with more intense life issues and that’s going to continue whenever an author’s inspired to create characters and write a novel. I just finished Rainbow Rowell’s excellent  book, Eleanor & Park, where Eleanor deals with some tough issues both at school and home. (I don’t want to give away the plot.)

I can see the appeal of the book and how this book resonates with a lot of readers, young and old. I could also imagine it becoming the springboard for a meaningful discussion between adults and kids.

Sometimes I wonder if there should be a ratings system for books, but the ratings system would present difficulties at libraries and bookstores. They’d have to tell some readers that they could or could not check out/buy some books and get grief for it.

And who would review the books and set the judgment standards? Would books such as The Hunger Games trilogy and Steig Larsson’s Lizbeth Salander novels be forbidden outright or what kind of rating would they have? Since both trilogies deal with violence and other volatile issues, the character and life experiences of the people reading them could affect the impartial nature of the rating.

Blog readers, what are your thoughts on book banning? Let’s discuss.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Does book banning ever really work?

  1. Servetus

    First, it’s not always “bad guys” who engaged in book burning. For instance, in 1520, Luther and Melanchthon engaged in a public burning of the papal excommunicating Luther that included burning most of the books of canon law and other Roman church texts they considered problematic. I’m not defending Luther and co, but they are typically seen to be the heroes of that story, and book burning was common both among evangelical/Protestant leaders and their Catholic opponents. As the Reformation took over Germany, the collections of dissolved monasteries were only partially rescued by the people we often see as the opponents of the heroes.

    Second, a brief historical note on Nazi book destruction — yes, libraries and public institutions eliminated books, but aside from a short period of time in the 1930s, public book burning itself wasn’t all that common. Mostly books were simply silently deaccessioned from libraries and other public settings and destroyed, but not always. Germans had and have a horror of disorder and many tried to avoid making a public display of book annihilation not because of the potential resistance factor but because of the potential of these events to generate public disorder. However, books that were private property were typically not destroyed; many people had them and continued to read them all through the 1933-45 period. It’s not clear that burning or deaccessioning affected readership all that much either way. There were authors who were forbidden to publish or broadcast by the government during the NS period; many of them simply published in Switzerland and those books made their way illegally back into Germany.

    The counterexample — after ’45 the BRD banned not just the printing of Nazi-sympathetic texts, but ordered their destruction as well (in some cases this happened publicly, but in most cases privately). It was largely ineffective. It’s fairly easy to find an old copy of Mein Kampf in a German household that’s persisted since the 1930s in an attic or a box of books; you regularly encounter them in rummage sales or used book stores. Too many of them were printed (they were sometimes given as wedding gifts) to make them easy to eliminate. However, evidence suggests that people didn’t read them in the 1930s and now, when it’s illegal to own a copy of that book or others like it in Germany (there are copies in libraries but you have to get permission to read them), it’s also only a tiny fringe of people who have read it.

    re: books today — I personally doubt that book banning makes kids all that curious about what is in banned books, and less so now than it would have in my own generation (I am 45). The proponents of saving banned books are all adults. There is too much other stuff for kids to consume for them to be worried about banned books — and what’s not being banned? The extreme violence of rap music, film, video games. What happens in schools and public libraries (where most banning battles are currently conducted) is largely irrelevant to the “youth of today,” at least in my perception.

  2. I don’t really have an answer. I don’t remember if any books were banned when I was in school. Perhaps the school library just didn’t have a copy. I read James Michener’s Hawaii when I was about 13 and it was quite an eye opener for me. Not sure my mother would have approved had she know exactly what was in it but I certainly survived and it didn’t change my character or beliefs. Overall I think exposing people/kids to all kinds of thinking and providing good values systems and role models works best but then again, I never had children.

  3. I’m convinced banning books increases readership. Moreover, “forbidden” sells books and publishers KNOW it.

    When I worked at Doubleday, we were told to include the “Warning: Contains material that may not be suitable for …” into pretty much every piece of fiction we published. Including books that were totally G-rated. Why? Because it sold books. We actually got letters from people complaining they couldn’t find the dirty parts.

  4. As a former school librarian I can’t say the issue of banning books came up very often. Basically, people don’t have to read what offends them and our district has an opt out policy on classroom novels. I’ve only had one parent concerned about a text–Lord of the Flies.

  5. I don’t believe in book banning/burning. I’m fairly conservative (prefer to consider myself “moderate”), and Christian, but would never consider “banning” a book simply because it expresses a different point of view than mine. In fact, I would want to read it so I could have an intelligent discussion about it.

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