Stories for Everyone

‘A local group claimed the books were satanic and promoting witchcraft, and consequently, set about burning a large cache of the books outside the Christ Community Church.’ [a 2001 campaign in Mexico against The Lord of the Rings]

In two previous articles, I talked about some of the books I enjoyed as a youngster. I also touched on censorship and how even the most innocuous literature can raise hackles for reasons which seem to me trivial and inane. We humans too easily forget that we don’t all like (or dislike) the same things, and that fashions, morality and political sensitivity (if I may call it that) all change with the times. As George Bernard Shaw wisely, and irreverently put it: Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same. **

No one is forcing you to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Color Purple, Lolita, or Harry Potter (Bless him!) – among all the many books that have been censored by one group or another – if you don’t want to. Just don’t buy it! Sure, parents have a right and a responsibility to guide their children’s reading and viewing, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the self-appointed censors who want to prevent everyone from reading a particular novel or poem. If you start rewriting Shakespeare, as the Bowdlers did back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, or cutting out bits of books that offend a few ears, where does it end?

A little research on the subject can reveal quite unexpected results. If your novel happens to be on banned lists anywhere in the world, you are in good company. Apart from Lawrence, Walker and Nabokov, some of the most respected writers and the most famous works of all time have been a target of the censor; the hatchet people have been around for very long time. Incidentally, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter had been criticised long before Ms Rowling’s opinions on sexual matters caused such a storm in the media. There used to be a document, held in the Vatican, I think, called the Papal Index which, apart from including (not unexpectedly) names like Darwin, Rousseau and Luther, also banned all the historical romances of Dumas, Pamela by Samuel Richardson and the Contes of La Fontaine.

Look at some of the worst offenders – a random selection!

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (BTW, also Of Mice and Men)

The poems of Alan Ginsberg and Walt Whitman, and of course the tales of Geoffrey Chaucer

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll

The Kite Runner by Khaled Husseini

The reasons people complain about books are many and varied, such objections as racist, blasphemous, pornographic, promoting satanism, anti-religion, ‘adult’ theme, violent being common. Often, these objections are simply a matter of the objector’s opinion – and they are entitled to it. Just as often, a writer is using a controversial theme to draw attention to a problem in society.

Steven King, himself sometimes a target, has recently vented somewhat forcefully on the subject of what children and teenagers are, or are not, expected to read: Hey, kids! It’s your old buddy Steve King telling you that if they ban a book in your school, haul your ass to the nearest bookstore or library ASAP and find out what they don’t want you to read. ***

Even the Reader’s Digest has weighed in on the subject: Parents, school board members and activists have all been responsible for removing some of the best books of all time from bookshelves. Of course, sometimes book banning backfires. When a book is banned, readers wonder why. And some feel compelled to buy the restricted work as a vote for free speech—like the teens who’ve created banned book clubs in protest.****

They make very good points. Just take a look at the Reader’s Digest list. The very act of banning a book or a movie is a sure way to send even us adults searching the bookshops or video stores for a copy. Or maybe nowadays we just download it from the internet. I remember with what eagerness I waited in the cinema queue to watch X-certified movies before I was officially of an age to do so. Happy days indeed!

Personally, I find the idea of rewriting works of literature – or those bits of them you don’t like – anti-education and anti-social. And when it comes to censoring books because some people don’t like an author’s opinions to conflict with theirs, I fear we are going down a very rocky road indeed. Social media have a lot to answer for, filled as they are with sound bites of hate and malevolence.

A final word: what am I reading now?

Well, it’s a book entitled Tales From The Perilous Realm by JRR Tolkein, a collection of fairy tales, would you believe? And if anyone would care to look at how Tolkein has fared in the banning league stakes, I recommend this article –

** Maxims for Revolutionists 1903

*** Twitter January 2023

**** Reader’s Digest Blog


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