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To Understand a Country, Read the Books It Has Banned

by Matt Hershberger Sep 29, 2017

Around Memorial Day, 2005, I read an article about a cable TV channel which was going to air the entire, unedited version of Saving Private Ryan several times through the holiday weekend. They were getting pushback from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) because there had been complaints from some concerned citizens at the idea of the movie being shown on a family channel.

“Makes sense,” I thought. I’d seen the movie. The first scene is a graphic, gruesome depiction of the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach in Normandy. It is possibly one of the most churning, painful scenes to watch in cinema history, and I could understand a parent being worried about their child channel-surfing and stumbling across an image of a man walking across blood-drenched sands, searching for his arm.

But then I read further: people weren’t upset about the violence. They were upset about the use of the word “fuck.”

Death and sex in America

In America, free speech is a protected constitutional right. But this right does not cover work which is categorized as “obscenity.” Art that is perceived as obscene can be suppressed or restricted. Many famous works have been restricted on the grounds of being obscene: Ulysses by James Joyce, The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. Even when a book is not actively suppressed by the government, it can still be removed library bookshelves with the rationale that it is “not appropriate for children.”

It is telling what Americans consider obscene: the dictionary definition is anything that’s “abhorrent to morality or virtue,” but in spite of that broad scope, in America, obscenity is usually only applied in reference to sex. We hardly bat an eye at the violence in our art, but we’re up in arms over talk of sex or masturbation. It’s not particularly clear why: most people would rank murder as more immoral than a roll in the hay. Likewise, most of us would probably agree that we’d rather our kids grow up to have healthy sex lives than lives of violence and brutality.

Reading the list of books that have been banned in the United States is liking reading through every one of our cultural flashpoints over the last century. Our biggest fights have been over sex (Ulysses, Naked Lunch, Lady Chatterley’s Lover); religion (Harry Potter, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale); war (Slaughterhouse Five, Catch-22, For Whom the Bell Tolls); politics (The Grapes of Wrath, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Jungle); and race (Huckleberry Finn, The Color Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird). To get a true sense of America, one could do worse than to read the books our country has tried to ban.

Learning about other countries through their banned books

I picked up a copy of The Satanic Verses in my early twenties because, at the time, I was a militant atheist, and I wanted to show solidarity with secular martyr Salman Rushdie. I was surprised when I read the book: I did not think, at the end, that it was banned because it was blasphemous. It probably was blasphemous — the plot in part centered around a historical episode in which the prophet Muhammad mistook Satan’s words for Allah’s, and said that it was acceptable for Muslims to worship other Gods.

Rushdie’s book portrays this as a political decision on the Prophet’s part, which he later regretted and took back, claiming that he’d been tricked by Satan. It would be hard, as a strict Muslim, to not find that blasphemous. But the book also included a scene that absolutely savaged Ayatollah Khomeini — who later put out the fatwa calling for Rushdie’s murder. It was hard, upon finishing the book, to imagine a world in which that scene was excluded and the fatwa was still put out. The book, which I’d picked up in a pretty pointless act of defiance, gave me a more nuanced, human insight into not only the Muslim religion, but also into the political reality of Iran at the time.

The same practice works for books other countries have banned. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only banned in the Confederate States, but was also banned in Tsarist Russia, which at the time was grappling with its own form of slavery. Doctor Zhivago was banned by the Soviets for showing the realities of life in Russia after the revolution. Communist countries like Vietnam and North Korea still have bans on the works of George Orwell, like Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four. In another world, the author could have been an ally to those countries — Orwell himself was a committed socialist who simply had an issue with totalitarian thugs.

Read things that make you feel uncomfortable

The best literature transcends time, place, and culture. The best literature is, to some extent, universal. But how a society reacts to artwork often tells you more about the society than the art itself. One might understand why some countries might blanch at the abusive, pedophilic relationship in Lolita, for instance. Or appreciate that Russia has considered banning the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the light of their anti-Semitic past.

But you learn nothing by never reading the banned book. In some ways, not reading a book that others don’t want you to read is like accepting the ban. Even in the case of truly odious books like Mein Kampf (banned, understandably, in Russia), there is usually more to be learned by reading than not: You might be surprised, for instance to see some of Hitler’s line of thinking echoed in the voices of American people today who are seen as legitimate leaders and commentators.

There’s a reason many books are considered dangerous: it’s because they are. Stories can (and regularly do) change worlds. They start fights. They end relationships. They ignite movements. Some books contain ideas that are poison. Others contain ideas that can save your life. But you won’t know which it is until you pull it off the bonfire and crack it open.

Push yourself. Ask hard questions. Read banned books.

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