January 7, 2010

Banning Books to Protect a Delusion

A reader sent me this link to a list of banned and/or challenged books, thinking it might be interesting material for a post. I agree. I started by simply scanning the list to see which of these books I had read. It turns out I've read most of them and that I had little idea that many of them had been banned or nearly banned. If others had their way, I might never have had the opportunity to experience such great books. Inevitably, this made me ask the question we've all asked at one time or another: why would anyone try to prevent others from reading a book?

I suspect that religion played a role in efforts to ban nearly all of these books. I do not mean to suggest that it was necessarily a primary motivator in all cases, but I'd guess that it was relevant more often than not. We've seen the same in most examples of limiting free expression.

I have read The Lord of the Rings several times without stopping to think that it was actually burned by a church in New Mexico for being Satanic. I never realized what one of my favorite books (that formed the basis of one of my favorite films), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest had to go through merely to remain available to school students in many districts. I have benefited from the tireless efforts of many to oppose these wrongs and preserve the books on this list.

Again and again, we see someone appoint themselves as the judge of all that is decent and moral, assemble a following, and campaign to restrict the rights of others. Banning books is about many things - fear, ignorance, anti-intellectualism, superstition, etc. - but it centers on depriving others of freedom. Banning a book means that it is not available for others to read even if they wish to do so. It is about imposing one's preferences on others.

I suppose that this is part of why religion goes hand-in-hand with book banning: it helps to remove any of the natural hesitancy we might feel about imposing our values on others. If our values are divine, after all, we have permission to push them on others. Indeed, we may even convince ourselves that we are obligated to do so.