“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” So said Heinrich Heine, the 18thcentury German writer famous for his radical politics. Heine’s works were publicly burned by the German Student Union in 1933 because they were against the spirit of National Socialism. Less than ten years later, the gas chambers were being kept busy by the Nazi death squads.
You’d think that the Nazi book burnings of 1933 would have rendered book censorship unfashionable. Yet in the 21st century, some authorities still think criminalising certain books is appropriate. This week marks Banned Books Week, an awareness raising event that is sadly still needed in modern society. Just this week, ironically, a school in Texas has banned the works of Toni Morrison and John Green, or what they consider to be ‘obscene literature’. The Maldives have recently announced new laws meaning that all literature must be approved by a government body before it is published, to ensure it does not challenge Islamic principles. The Da Vinci Code was banned in Lebanon after complaints it was offensive to Christianity. Although Banned Books Week is most prominently recognised in America, these examples show why the week should receive much more international coverage, and why book censorship is an issue we should all pay more attention to.
Freedom of speech is an important quality in a democracy, and even books some would deem unpleasant, or quite simply bad, should be allowed to be published in full. Besides, even if you personally hate The Da Vinci Code, the right to speak your mind about religion is a critical element to freedom of speech. Look what happened to the Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westegaard, who drew pictures of Mohammed. Governments and media organisations all over the world took to denouncing the cartoons, but they seemed to ignore the important principle that in a civil society, free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient.
Banning literature has been used as an excuse for many things, but mostly to preserve a certain kind of morality. However, almost always, that morality is one rooted in bigotry. In Lebanon, all books that portray Jews, Israel or Zionism favourably are banned, including Schindler’s List and The Diary of Anne Frank. Outlawing books has been a reactionary tool, utilised by despots to keep their subjects under control. They don’t want the citizens of their lands to be exposed to new cultures and new ideas through the medium of a novel. Regimes lose legitimacy the second they ban novels.
The right to read a book must be vigorously defended throughout the world. Reading is not just good for the democracy. Often, it is the best window into another culture and another world. Through books, you are able to find your humanity. And that’s really what people in authority hate.
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