Banned Books Week invites a welcome, if predictable, torrent of publicity. “Communities [must] stand up against censorship,” implores the AARP’s Bulletin on Books. “It’s easy to take the First Amendment for granted,” muses Time Magazine. “Censorship denies our freedom as individuals to choose and think for ourselves,” writes the Athens Banner-Herald.
It is, undoubtedly, an important message.
German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in an 1821 play, “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.”
Some 112 years later, Nazis torched thousands of books before training their fire on people.
Throughout history, groups have sought to ban – and burn – books, as if so doing would extinguish the message, the subversion, or the “filth” contained therein. Sadly, it’s hardly a thing of the past. Current events have an uncanny way of mimicking history – remember Terry Jones, the Florida minister who planned to hold a Quran-burning at his Gainesville church Sept. 11th ?
There were at least 460 challenges to books in schools and libraries last year, according to the American Library Association. The complaints usually center on sexual explicitness, offensive language, politically subversive ideas, or mature content. And of course, the resistance against such complaints cites First Amendment freedoms and blasts censorship as close-minded, dangerous.
But are the pronouncements that Banned Books Week stimulates simply lip service? Most news stories and editorials commemorating the event assume a glib superiority over those who allegedly raise complaints – small-town, right-wing Evangelicals; prudes and bigots; the politically dogmatic.
What would these same First-Amendment-defenders think of a more provocative list of books – not the relatively innocuous “The Catcher in the Rye” and “And Tango Makes Three,” the oft-cited picture book that landed on a banned list in a school district in Charlotte, N.C.
What about books that take on some seriously taboo topics, like Holocaust denial, terrorism, sadism, or pedophilia?
Here’s a list of five books, some of which have – strangely – never been banned. All of them make “Lolita” look tame.
- “Mein Kampf,” by Adolf Hitler. The dictator’s famous manifesto contained such offensive lines as, “The personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew” and “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."
- "Messages to the World," by Osama bin Laden. This 225-page tome published in 2005 and available on Amazon is a collection of the Al Qaeda leader’s statements, and presented as another side to the story on the war on terrorism.
- “The Global Bell Curve,” by Richard Lynn. The author, a psychologist, argues that intelligence is racially inherited, putting East Asians at the top and sub-Saharan Africans at the bottom of a global IQ spectrum.
- “Did Six Million Really Die?” by Richard E. Harwood. This National Front diehard’s Holocaust-denial booklet still inspires neo-Nazis.
- “The 120 Days of Sodom,” by Marquis de Sade. Some call it “the magnum opus of the divine Marquis,” others, “an industrial-scale porn epic that inspires sadists.” The 1785 work by the French nobleman tells the story of four male libertines who imprison themselves in a harem with 46 male and female sex slaves in order to experience continuous orgies of sexual gratification. It chronicles sexual abuse, torture, and eventually, slaughter.
Readers, what do you think? Should these books be banned? Should they be available in libraries? Does the First Amendment protect these works? Join the discussion and let us know what you think on Facebook and Twitter.
Husna Haq is a frequent Monitor contributor.