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Don’t Talk to Strange Books, OK?

Conventional wisdom says books are our friends, although some people may say a few are not.

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”

Captain Beatty, the antagonist of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, is known for brandishing one of the novel’s most quoted statements. Knowledge is power, it’s said, and there has been no more iconic a representation of that power as the published book.

I’ve always loved reading, and that led to comparative literature and critical theory in college. The implicit power of books has always fascinated me: what could possibly make entire countries want to ban bound sheets of paper? Why would religions want to punish people for publishing stories with titles like The Satanic Verses? How did calling books “dangerous” even become a thing? Inquiring minds want to know!

Risk is relative

Have you heard of the American Library Association? Or more specifically, their advocacy regarding banned and challenged books? I didn’t, up until I came across Banned Books Week just this year.

The ALA, as it turns out, has been fighting a long and complex battle for years regarding what books are considered safe to be included in libraries, for a variety of reasons that fall under questionable content. The actual practice of Banned Books Week, where they emphasize the value of maintaining the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular, has been around since the 1980s. People challenge the worthiness of some titles for public consumption, and the ALA defends the value of keeping them on shelves.

Yes, Salman Rushdie’s controversial claim to fame is a regular on the ALA’s lists of frequently challenged books, but quite a few of the other regulars might surprise you.

Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is on there because of its suicide-based narrative. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan is there because of homosexuality and because it “condones public displays of affection.”

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, is there because it “includes sexual violence and was thought to ‘lead to terrorism’ and ‘promote Islam.’ And yes, even the Holy Bible is there because it carries a “strong religious viewpoint,” to put it mildly.

Fifty Shades of GreyThe Perks of Being a WallflowerTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Catcher in the Rye. Even the Harry Potter series. Quite a few of the most popular volumes of recent generations are on those lists of frequently challenged books, because of the many ways they might upset prevailing cultural perceptions.

What the ALA wants to protect isn’t those books per se, though, but the critical appreciation that the public should have regarding what’s out there.

But how did we get here? Let’s turn the clock back, shall we?

The preface to publishing

The written word was around since long before the practice of binding texts as volumes, but it was the invention of movable type that changed everything. Johannes Gutenberg was the common man’s Prometheus, giving humanity a gift that would see learning and literacy made available to all rather than cloistered to only a privileged few.

Today, it’s clear that we’ve come a long way from 1439, just as the Arrakis of Frank Herbert’s Dune is a very different place by the time God Emperor of Dune, four novels and three in-story millennia later, rolls around. (Not a spoiler, I promise! Also, come on, Dune came out in 1965 and God Emperor in 1981.)

The pursuit of delivering knowledge to the masses has been transformed: the new battleground is the nature of the information. Nobody disputes the idea of education as a universal right. Instead, the question now is exactly what people should be allowed to learn, and books are the primary way they’re learning.

I’m jumping ahead, though; let’s go back to that watershed period of the late 1400s.

Controlling the narrative

The Catholic Church and its attendant European governments weren’t too thrilled with Gutenberg’s theft of their fire. By the time they realized what had happened, it was too late: the technology was easily replicated, and it was a foregone conclusion that books would make their way into the hands of the general population. Perhaps not with beautiful, illuminated pages (a fact that would eventually change when the rest of technology caught up to democratize artistic production as well), but with pages full of ideas nonetheless. The gatekeepers had lost control, and they were powerless to stop it.

They weren’t stunned for long, though, and just as countless institutions would later do throughout history to reconsolidate their power, they sought to control what they could not stop. By the 16th century, the Catholic Church had come up with the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books). Since governments at the time were intertwined with the Church, they started monitoring and purging, and soon there was punishment for writing, publishing, reading or even having books deemed troublesome.

Institutionalized censorship as we know it today had begun, and with it, the idea of labeling certain books as dangerous.

Danger, Will Robinson

Of course, the practice of censorship for the ‘greater good’ had been around long before then, but it was a comparatively simple matter: isolate troublemakers that messed with the established order, and then discredit or silence them. With the proliferation of books, ideological control had to shift to an entirely new order of magnitude. It had to become, for all intents and purposes, a crusade: a holy war against ideas that threatened the established order.

One of the first prominent examples of literature being muzzled was when Galileo Galilei got into trouble with the Roman Catholic Inquisition in the early 1600s. His Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), the first published scientific treatise based on data gathered via telescope, supported the heliocentric ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus, which were already considered heretical by the Church. That, and the rest of Galileo’s later published work, would lead to the Church having him tried and imprisoned for heresy.

Ah, the conflict between science and religion. A tale as old as time.

Anyway, you could say that the situation with Sidereus Nuncius was dangerous only in an immediate and literal sense to Galileo himself; it led to his being put under house arrest until his death. But the Church didn’t stop there. The Church believed his ideas to be dangerous to the Catholic worldview, so his works were banned.

Let’s fast-forward three-and-a-half centuries later: in similarly appropriate form for the apparent defense of religious sanctity, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran would declare a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, citing it for blasphemy and making a mockery of Islam. That gesture would have the opposite effect, however, and would also serve to catapult the conversation of dangerous books into the contemporary public consciousness with a very visible example.

All that has led us to where we are today: more critical than ever about what makes for allegedly dangerous reading, and how the act of declaring something dangerous can itself be dangerous.

The book, ascendant

Today, technology gives us new and inventive ways to consume information, using sheets of glass and light instead of dead trees. But I continue to see bodies of work as texts, as volumes, as virtual representations of the original things with pages. That’s how they’re written, how they’re sold, and how they’re consumed.  

In fact, the very things that quasi-futurists insisted would herald the “death” of printed books, such as audiobooks, digital readers, and even the internet itself, have served instead to give them new life. Having information in such handy packages just gives them greater power.

Growth and evolution require changes in perspective, and books are excellent vehicles for those. If we’re not careful, we could shut down an essential way to better appreciate the world simply because we’re scared. I’d like to think we can be better than that.

One last thing! Before we close the book on this (always intend your puns!), would you like to hear about a book that’s literally dangerous to your health? Check out Shadows from the Walls of Death. It’s to die for.