From September 27th until October 3rd it was Banned Books Week, in which we celebrate our freedom to read and draw attention to the problem of censorship.
Throughout the ages many different books have been banned by many different authorities for many different reasons. These reasons, and the books that have been banned, have changed through time and place. For instance, in 16th century England after the break between Henry VIII and the Catholic Church, catholic books were banned. In more recent years libraries and schools have banned books that they see as inappropriate. Most often these are young adult novels with sex scenes or with themes of homosexuality. The books that are censored show what those in power consider inappropriate.
On June 14, 1643, the English Parliament passed the Licensing Order, which required that all books be approved by an official censor before publication, and on November 23, 1644, Milton wrote Areopagitica, in which he protested this law. One of his arguments is that to learn what is right we also need examples of what is wrong, because without one the other cannot be recognized. Anotherof his arguments is that every book is open to interpretation. Where one person might think a book is encouraging something bad, someone else may see it as a cautionary tale. He also had practical concerns about the Licensing Order. One of these concerns was that mistakes can easily be made in the process of deciding whether a book may be published. Another concern is who should decide if a book should be would have so much power that they could easily misuse that power.
In the modern western world few books are banned by the government, but schools and libraries do still ban books. In America for instance 311 challenges of banned books were reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2014, and many more go unreported. One of the most challenged titles was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. One of the reasons it was banned was for the themes of homosexuality. Other reasons include it containing offensive language, being sexually explicit, and being unsuited for the age group of high schoolers. This really shows the attitude of some libraries and schools towards these topics. It also shows that certain strands of American society are still more homophobic and sex shaming than many countries in which these books do not get banned. And that while especially in high school many children could benefit from reading a book in which themes like homosexuality and sexual abuse are addressed.
There are still books that are banned by the government. For instance in the Netherlands, Mein Kampf is banned. It is possible to obtain a copy of it, if the book is used for scientific work. It is banned under Article 137e of the Dutch Criminal Law. This Article forbids discrimination, insult and incitement to hatred and violence. In 2000, a market vendor on the Waterloo square in Amsterdam had a copy of Mein Kampf at his stand. In court a judge ruled that he had distributed a book that encourages antisemitism. However the market vendor argued that he sold the book, because he thought people could learn from the past and that it would help prevent antisemitism in the future. The defendant did not receive punishment. In 2014 there was another case involving Mein Kampf. Gallery owner Michiel van Eyck sold an antique copy of the book in his gallery. In his court case he asked the question whether people would buy an expensive, to be inspired to antisemitism. This man was also acquitted.
In the last case discussed in previous one of the reasons for the acquittal was that the text of Mein Kampf can be found on the internet. It can be bought on Amazon. com, which is legal, in German and English. It can even be found as a free pdf-file with a Dutch translation. This led to Esther Voet, director of the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI), stating that “reality is passing us by.” The Netherlands can no longer maintain the prohibition of the book due to the internet. This brings up the question whether it is still possible to ban a book. Because the internet will always have an illegal copy of it somewhere and when laws of different countries differ the internet becomes a grey area.
Much can be learnt when looking at banned books. They spark a discussion on censorship. They can show the values of the authorities in a culture. Banned books even play a role in how international and laws of individual countries come together in the age of the internet. And lastly they can start a conversation on how books affect people.
By Julie Notenboom
Vleugel, Ferdinand. “Heeft het verbod op Mein Kampf zijn langste tijd gehad?”. Nu.nl 21 Nov. 2014. Web.