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Dangerous Books

To mark World Book Day, St Benedict’s Librarian Emma Wallace talked about books which have been banned, for social, cultural, religious and political reasons over the centuries, such as Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Harry Potter series, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Orwell’s Animal Farm.

World Book Day 2021 – Taking a look at some ‘Dangerous books’

Yes, books are dangerous. They should be dangerous – they contain ideas.” Pete Hautman[1]

Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labelled ‘This could change your life.” Helen Exley[2]

St Benedict's Librarian blog Dangerous Books

This year’s World Book Day was unlike any other I have experienced in the nearly fourteen years I have been a school librarian!  World Book Day is usually the highlight of my library events calendar, spending many months brainstorming creative ideas to focus students’ attention on the importance of reading, planning for competitions and events on the day and deciding which authors to invite to speak.  In comparison, this year’s WBD fell on Thursday 4th March, missing the national return to school by a couple of days, and consequently requiring a complete rethink and shift to the virtual world of Microsoft Teams and St Benedict’s School intranet, Firefly, where teaching and learning had been carried out since the beginning of January.

Books have been considered dangerous for thousands of years, prohibited from being published, sold or held in collections by a wide range of institutions from, schools, libraries, organisations, religious groups and governments."

Every couple of weeks the St Benedict’s Academic stretch and challenge department, the Helikon Centre, run an online ‘Thinking Forum’ through Firefly, posing a challenging or thought-provoking question to encourage pupils to consider their own views and formulate and express their opinions on a selected topic.  Previous ‘Thinking Forum’ topics include, ‘Should eBooks replace printed books’, ‘Does disinformation challenge democracy?’ and ‘Is the interest in dystopian novels a reflection on society’s anxieties?’.  This year, the Helikon centre kindly agreed to run a World Book Day related thinking forum, posing the question ‘Are Books Dangerous?’.  I thought this was a brilliant and engaging topic, one that raises many prevalent issues that we are facing today, from the debate around freedom of information and speech, the right to offend, censorship, plus how different societies deal with these issues both now, and in the past.   

“Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too”

Heinrich Heine 1821

We had many students from across the year groups commenting on the WBD ‘Are books dangerous’ thinking forum, making a range of insightful points.  A number of students mentioned the danger of violent messages and instructions being found in books, the risk of books containing false or misleading information, and the dangers of a book affecting someone’s mental health.  A number of students reflected that even with these possible dangers, it is even more dangerous to censor books, because of the consequential loss of knowledge and freedom of choice.  Instead, we need to protect the idea of freedom of information in a democratic society.  Here is a selection of some of the student’s comments:

“I think that books do have the potential to be dangerous. However, I believe that this danger sometimes stems from how many people lack the skills required to decipher the intentions of authors of non-fiction materials. Similar to issues concerning fake news, books can be manipulative and misleading, which could certainly create dangerous situations.” Eleanor, Y11

“Books themselves and the ideologies that they represent are never dangerous, rather condemning certain books because they are believed to be 'dangerous' is, historically, what has tended to damage societies. Allowing all books to be freely published and distributed can only help society to flourish and prevent polarisation, as people can inform themselves from a range of sources and perspectives.” James, Y12

“I believe that the knowledge contained in some books can be dangerous, as it can hurt and deeply affect a person. This could be very damaging to someone and is dangerous for their mental health. Also, for example a book that contained information about making weapons could be dangerous if a certain person read it and decided to use it.” Maria, Y8

“When the Americans raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in 2011, they discovered many books on U.S politics but they also discovered 2008 Guinness book of world records and a guide to sports nutrition. It is the reader and not the book that is dangerous.” Edmund, Y9

“Reading about and understanding different opinions which we disagree with is key to developing society and ourselves, and by stopping these opinions from spreading only hides them from us. It is only be reading and understanding other people’s viewpoints can we learn more about others.” Oscar, Y13

The most serious danger of books (and the same goes for social media) is the propagation of misinformation, falsehoods and conspiracy theories.” James, Y9

Contributing to the debate led me to think about what books have been identified as ‘dangerous’ and the reasons why they have gained this label, connected to my belief that a librarian’s role is to ensure that material is available to others, without censorship.  I was reminded of ‘Banned Books Week’, set up by the American Library Association in 1982 and celebrated annually at the end of September.  This week draws attention to the issues around books being banned, the harm of censorship and how important it is that we protect free and open access to information[3].  This is a particular issue in America where, whilst the US government cannot ban books as a result of the First Amendment, protecting freedom of speech and the press,[4] individual school districts and school boards are frequently involved in banning titles, often initiated by parent complaints.  While the UK has much less of a history of banning books, I believe ‘Banned Books Week’ is a brilliant way of illustrating to students how people have dealt with books that have been perceived as ‘dangerous’ over the years and raise awareness of the related issues around censorship.  In previous years, I’ve created library displays to highlight the week, wrapping books in brown paper to ‘censor’ them and running connected competitions to encourage students to guess which book titles have been banned around the world.  Students are always intrigued by the theme of this week and surprised by the books that have been banned and the reasons why. 

It was consequently the Thinking Forum’s topic of ‘Are Books Dangerous?’ and its connection to ‘Banned Books Week’, that led me to the idea of running a special World Book Day online talk on this area, revealing a little more about the social and cultural history of some ‘Dangerous Books’.  The talk was promoted as being led by a ‘Librarian who is custodian to some dangerous books’, directing me to include some specific titles that we hold in the library and students’ study at school that have been banned.  This includes books such as, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Color Purple by Alice Walker and both Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984.[5]

Researching the topic was completely fascinating and I feel like I only just began to scratch the surface of delving into the history of dangerous books for my talk!  I found a great starting article on ‘The Day’ school newspaper database entitled ‘World Book Day: salute a revolutionary object’[6], tying together the themes around the power of books, with the importance of celebrating intellectual freedom.  Books have been considered dangerous for thousands of years, prohibited from being published, sold or held in collections by a wide range of institutions from, schools, libraries, organisations, religious groups and governments.   The books that have been considered dangerous and the reasons given have also changed as social, cultural and religious changes have occurred over the centuries.  It is also hugely dependent on the country the book is being published or held in and their general belief system at the time as to whether a book has been banned and the reasons given as to why it is banned[7].  An example of this is Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ from 1865, which was banned in 1931 by the Governor of the Hunan province in China, because of its portrayal of animals on the same levels as humans[8].  In contrast, America banned the book from as early as the 1900s, and repeatedly in the 1960s, for a range of reasons, from the belief that it contained a subversive message, because it included expletives and its also alleged promotion of drug use![9]     

I began my talk with ‘A Very Brief History of…’ why books have been considered dangerous, starting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when the novel rose to prominence.  Rather than this being considered a positive, as we now talk about ‘reading for pleasure’ with students in library lessons, many religious groups believed that novel reading was extremely dangerous and that access to books should be curtailed.  These groups condemned books as sinful and promoted immoral behaviour amongst readers.  And it was women who were considered to be particularly at peril by reading, as they gained increased access to novels and began to be read in much wider numbers.  Victorian patriarchal society tried to limit women’s access, whilst propagating the dangers, stating that women were too emotional to handle the texts, that the books would corrupt their innocent minds, lead them sexually and morally astray and that they would become distracted from their husband and housework![10]   

One way that groups have dealt with ‘dangerous books’ over the ages has been through carrying out mass book burnings[11].  This symbolic act of censorship has been prevalent for hundreds of years, from antiquity to present day, so much so that Wikipedia has created its own page dedicated to ‘book-burning incidents’.[12]  Probably the most infamous book burnings were those carried out by the Nazi’s, starting in 1933, when German university students burnt tens of thousands of books nationwide considered ‘un-Germanic[13].  Books deemed to fall under this category were written by intellectuals, scientists and other significant cultural figures, from both the past and contemporary, many of whom were Jewish.  One of the books that was burnt in 1933 was by the Jewish journalist and poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote the prophetic words in 1821 “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too”[14].  During the talk I asked students to consider why they thought the Nazi’s particularly targeted books by intellectuals, resulting in some interesting comments about the Nazi regimes fear of ideas, the need to repress thought that might challenge their ideology and the resulting limit to people’s independence, freedom and autonomy.

I ended my talk by looking at some individual, well-known titles that have been banned over the years.  The reasons they have been considered dangerous are wide ranging and sometimes surprising, from the books political and social messages, the inclusion of violence or sexual content, to anti-religious messages or the inclusion of profanity.  One of the books most frequently cited by students on the ‘Thinking Forum’ discussion was ‘Mein Kampf’ (My Struggle), Adolf Hitler’s 1925 autobiography, which sold millions of copies during the Nazi regime.  This book was banned by many different countries across the world and is today still banned in a number countries, though no longer in Germany.[15] 

Other more seemingly innocent books such as the Harry Potter series have been banned repeatedly by many different countries, including more recently, US, Poland and the UAE.  This series has been part of numerous book burnings, with reasons cited from its representation and promotion of witchcraft and magic, to the author JK Rowling’s views on Donald Trump and Trans people.  One of the most frequently banned children’s books in recent years, has been the picture book ‘And Tango Makes Three’ based on a true story of two gay penguins hatching an egg in New York’s Central Park Zoo.[16]  This book has also been banned repeatedly in US schools and libraries since it was published in 2005, mainly because of its depiction of a same sex relationship.

From my talk on ‘Dangerous books’ and the related ‘Thinking Forum’ debate, I hope students gained a greater insight into why certain books have been perceived as dangerous over the centuries and how societies have dealt with this issue in different ways.  I hope it ignited their interest in some of the books that have been challenged and banned over the years and encouraged them to borrow the titles from the library and decide for themselves!  The topic of ‘dangerous books’ is so important because it touches on many critical issues that we are grappling with in society today, from the debate around freedom of information and speech, what should or shouldn’t be considered offensive or dangerous, plus the presiding issue of how we deal with the rise of misinformation and disinformation.   I stand by the belief that we should not restrict access to information or books, but rather we must improve and integrate the teaching of critical thinking skills into schools to ensure that students have the skills to be able to decipher for themselves whether a book and its contents is dangerous or not, fake or not.  

I’ll end as I did in my talk, with the following profound words spoken by American author and historian Barbara W. Tuchman at a Library of Congress lecture in 1979: “…for books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as a poet has          said) "lighthouses erected in the sea of time." They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.[17]

 

Emma Wallace

20th March 2021

 

[1] Hautman, Pete., Peter Hautman - Quotable Quotes, Good Readshttps://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1434609-yes-books-are-dangerous-they-should-be-dangerous---they

[2] Exley, Helen., Helen Exley – Quotes, Good Reads, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/16557.Helen_Exley

[3] ALA, Banned Books Week, https://bannedbooksweek.org/

[4] Constitution of the United States, First Amendment, https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-1/

[5] Stylist Team., 50 banned books from recent history (including Harry Potter), Stylist, 2020, https://www.stylist.co.uk/life/50-books-that-were-banned/47882

[6] The Day, World Book Day: salute a revolutionary object, 3rd March 2011, https://theday.co.uk/stories/world-book-day-salute-a-revolutionary-object 

[7] Wikipedia, List of books banned by governments, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_books_banned_by_governments 

[8] Rosenthal, Kristina., Banned books: Alice in Wonderland, UTULSA, 5th Feb 2014, http://orgs.utulsa.edu/spcol/?p=3192

[9] Melendez, Dalyz., Why Alice in Wonderland Was Banned Throughout the 20th Century, Her Campus, UPRM, 27th Sept 2018,      https://www.hercampus.com/school/uprm/why-alice-wonderland-was-banned-throughout-20th-century

[10] Gulch, Sidewinder., The Woman Reader in the 19th Century Britain, 7th Feb 2013, https://stefanihid.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/the-woman-reader-in-the-19th-century-britain/

[11] Boissoneault, Lorraine., A Brief History of Book Burning, From the Printing Press to Internet Archives, Smithsonian Magazine, 31st August 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-book-burning-printing-press-internet-archives-180964697/

[12] Wikipedia, List of book-burning incidents, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_book-burning_incidents

[13] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nazi Book Burning, 13th May 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHzM1gXaiVo

[15] Gopnik, Adam., Does ‘Mein Kampf’ remain a dangerous book? The New Yorker, 12th January 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/does-mein-kampf-remain-a-dangerous-book

[16] Gomez, Betsy., Banned Spotlight: And Tango Makes Three, Banned Books Week, 5th Sept 2018, https://bannedbooksweek.org/banned-spotlight-and-tango-makes-three/

[17] Tuchman, Barbara W., The Book, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Nov., 1980, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Nov., 1980), pp. 16-32, Accessed through JSTOR https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3824051.pdf               

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