Thursday, April 10, 2014

13 Essential Banned Books

Sometimes banning a book can seem almost justified; as an example, it is illegal to print copies of Mein Kampf in Germany, while in Austria it not only can't be printed - it can't be owned or distributed. Sometimes banning a book is just silly, as in the case of the Dictionary of Modern Serbo-Croatian Language, which was banned in the former state of Yugoslavia for fear that some definitions might be disturbing to the country's citizens, or in the cases of Black Beauty, which was banned in South Africa, and The Call of the Wild, which Italian censors found radical. In most cases books are banned either because of subversive political or religious material, as in the cases of The Satanic Verses or The Communist Manifesto, or because of perceived obscenity, as in the cases of Lolita, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Fanny Hill, or even Ulysses. Many books that deal with taboo subjects were simply revised, like The Picture of Dorian Gray or Sister Carrie, or suppressed. But, no matter the reason for its being banned, a banned book is a book that invites perusal, an act that can prove both enlightening and amusing.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
One of the wackier instances of censorship is surely General Hu Chien's decision to suppress Carroll's delightful nonsense tale in the Hunan province of China. Why? Because he felt insulted by Carroll's attribution of human language to non-human animals and feared that the book would instruct children to consider human beings and other animals as equals - in other words, the man had a whopper of an inferiority complex. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in fact can hardly be said to teach any lesson at all, being a supreme example of happily written nonsense. What on earth might the General have thought of Disney films?

Animal Farm - George Orwell
George Orwell's politically knife-edged allegory has famously been banned in nearly every communist country and is in fact still banned in Cuba and North Korea, and only available in a censored version in China, but, in a stranger instance of censorship, it was banned in the United Arab Emirates as recently as 2002 because of conflicts with Islamic values, one cited example being a talking anthropomorphized pig. In this instance, the power of Animal Farm's bleak vision of the intrinsic flaws of the communist enterprise makes its frequent banning understandable, though not justifiable.

The Bible
The Bible, like many religious texts including the Koran, has been almost continually banned, censored, suppressed, or otherwise restricted throughout history. It was not an uncommon occurrence that certain versions, particularly translations into the vernacular, were deemed subversive and the very existence of the apocryphal gospels is ample evidence of the controversial constitution of this, the most influential work in the Western world. Only five years ago a North Korean woman was executed for distributing copies of the Bible.Whether or not one is a Christian, the Bible is essential reading, for without at least a superficial knowledge of it, one cannot hope to grasp the full meaning of centuries' worth of Western literature, art, and music.

Candide - Voltaire
In 1929, United States customs officials found Voltaire's satire of Leibnizian optimism obscene and refused to allow copies of Candide, ordered for a class at Harvard, to be admitted into the country. One of the most influential works of philosophical satire, Candide tells the story of an innocent young man, indoctrinated, along with his love Cunegonde, into the philosophies of pied piper Pangloss, who insists that this is "the best of all possible worlds." The corruption and disillusionment of the young lovers forms the narrative of the story, but one wonders what precisely so shocked the customs officials.

The Decameron - Giovanni Boccaccio
Along with The Canterbury Tales and numerous other classic works of literature, The Decameron was banned from the United States mail under the Comstock Law, which prohibited either sending or receiving obscene or filthy material. It's not particularly surprising that this marvelous work should be banned, given its at times uproarious and at times lascivious but decidedly copious sex scenes, many of the participants in which are members of the clergy. Among the delights of this work are also numerous gruesome murders, successful acts of theft and treason, and a literal dunking in a vat of shit.

The Diary of Anne Frank
In a particularly ugly instance of censorship, this heartbreaking and incredibly important piece of testimony has been banned in Lebanon because it portrays the Jewish people and the Zionist movement favorably. The book has also been repeatedly the center of hysterical parental complaints over school curricula, with many alleging that the book is obscene for its depiction of a teenage girl's sexual awakening and with others objecting to literature intended to illuminate the horrific costs of the Holocaust. While I am loath to ever insist that everyone read any one book, this is certainly one of the most essential works of the twentieth century, one that attests to the unthinkable havoc human beings are capable of wreaking on each other.

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
In South Africa under apartheid, Shelley's groundbreaking science fiction novel about a scientist's misguided and ultimately tragic attempt to reanimate dead human flesh was banned under charges of obscenity. This is a rare case in which the charges of obscenity do not, presumably, refer to depictions of sex or sexuality, but it is difficult to ascertain what exactly the censors found indecent. In Western countries, the depiction of man creating man provoked heated discussion over the work's alleged blasphemy, a somewhat less nonsensical charge, but it is difficult to believe that the same objection was raised in 1950s South Africa.

Green Eggs and Ham - Dr. Seuss
In 1965, the People's Republic of China banned one of Dr. Seuss's best books, the entire text of which consists of only fifty words, because of its depiction of "early Marxism." The ban was not lifted until 1991, after Dr. Seuss had passed away. This is certainly an odd instance of suppression, but it also attests to the incredible power that can be wielded with words, even with as small a selection as fifty. If Sam-I-Am can cause such consternation with his injunction to just try eating green eggs and ham, then it is easy to imagine the sort of hyper-sensitivity and wild over-interpretation that characterized the Chinese censorship office.

Howl - Allen Ginsberg
Perhaps the most famous work of beat poetry was seized before it ever made it into bookstores. An attempt to sell the book on the black market led to the arrest of a bookstore owner and the book's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested on obscenity charges. Though objections were raised to the book's many references to illegal drug use, the line "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy" appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back. But in the end, Ferlinghetti won his case and Ginsberg's brilliantly subversive poem was let loose upon the world. Only a decade later, the poem would again run into obscenity charges, this time in Finland, for its alleged encouragement of homosexuality.

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita has been banned due to allegations of obscenity all over the world, including in such democratic countries as France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Part of the difficulty with Lolita is that is a filthy book, one that describes, in detail, acts of pedophilia and rape. Nabokov, in giving us a narrator that is both intellectually capable of running rings around us and unspeakably despicable, unleashed one of the most challenging literary works of all time, constantly misunderstood, and all too frequently misinterpreted as a justificatory manifesto.

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert famously fought and won the case against his masterpiece on charges of obscenity, even dedicating the novel to his triumphant lawyer. That the novel caused a stir should come as no surprise, given that its heroine is an adulteress on whose actions Flaubert refused to pass judgement, but in this case the obscenity case worked in the author's favor, for its notoriety translated easily to popularity and financial dividends. Like so many of the works on this list, Madame Bovary has proved to be a ubiquitous influence, in this case setting the standard for the realistic narrative.

Moll Flanders- Daniel Defoe
This expose of a prostitute's lascivious albeit rather miserable life was another one of the great works of literature banned from the United States mail under the Comstock Law. Intended to be interpreted as a memoir, the book's subject matter is even today controversial, following Moll's tawdry birth in Newgate Prison to her career as a prostitute and her many sexual liaisons, including one with her brother, to her eventual "penitence," though Moll proves rather blithe even in her apparent remorse.

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Confederate States, unsurprisingly, banned Stowe's abolitionist opus, but so did Nicholas I of Russia, who felt that its ideal of equality undermined religion. Uncle Tom's Cabin is today one of the most reviled works of classic literature, condemned as a racist, stereotyped book, but if one has actually read it, one knows that, far from portraying African-Americans stereotypically, Stowe argues against slavery by depicting the victims of slavery as complex human beings, capable of pain, love, and sacrifice. Uncle Tom embodies the virtues of Christ and thus becomes one of the most positively transgressive figures of nineteenth century literature. More than 150 years later, we seek empowered heroes, not Christ figures, but the concept of empowerment is very much a product of twentieth century politics. The irony of being reviled both as a proponent of the abolitionist movement and as a work promulgating racist stereotypes is one of the strangest facets of this book's legacy.

In the end, it seems as though almost every great masterpiece, significant political or technically innovative works, or even particularly beloved books face some sort of censorship. The above list is far from complete and could have included many more wonderful, from Harry Potter to To Kill a Mockingbird, The Awakening to The Giver. Readers, what are your favorite banned books?

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