How to Spot a Banned Book

rrramble written by Isaac Holden.

“Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well”

– Heinrich Heine, 1821

 I have spent the last few months obsessed with banned books. My personal feelings and beliefs tell me to be scared of censorship, to raise my hackles whenever a new story about banned books crops up. And over the past year these stories seem to be appearing more and more often. The censorship debate seems to be taking place everywhere, from university libraries to high-street bookstores, and the more I see, the harder it gets to work out what’s actually happening. What do these accusations of censorship even mean? Are we really entering a new age of banned books? What the hell is going on? and what does it say about us?

 In October 2021 Julie Bindel, a veteran feminist author notorious for her transphobia, sent out a tweet bemoaning that she couldn’t find a copy of her latest book, Feminism for Women, in Waterstones stores across London.

A screenshot of a tweet by Julie Bindel. The tweet reads: "I've check in 5 separate Waterstones around London if my book is where it should be, in alphabetical order/new hardback section etc, and it is literally nowhere in sight. But when I asked if they have it in stock, they all said yes and got it from the back. What a disgrace."

The right wing press had a field day, running headlines about ‘selective censorship’ that framed Bindel’s complaint as an issue of academic freedom in times of ‘cancel culture’. But when placed under scrutiny these claims of censorship collapse; even supposing Bindel really did spend her time failing to spot her own book in 5 different stores, this isn’t evidence of censorship. There are dozens of reasons a text might not be visible. At the absolute worst, 5 managers independently decided against dedicating shelf space to an overtly transphobic author, but even this unlikely scenario hasn’t prevented anyone actually accessing the book (like Bindel, they can request a copy, or order online, or go to another major retailer), and it certainly doesn’t suggest a conspiracy of Waterstones executives trying to silence her.

In the same month, author Jerry Craft had his visit to a school in Texas cancelled, after his graphic novel New Kid was removed from the school library on the grounds that it teaches critical race theory. NBC News sounded the censorship alarm, situating New Kid in a story of Republican lawmakers seeking to ban books they don’t like. I certainly felt uneasy watching this story unfold; here was a book aimed at schoolchildren that seemed to be under attack solely because it featured a black protagonist; surely this couldn’t be happening? Well, in a sense it wasn’t. Pretty quickly the school district reviewed the complaint about New Kid, found that the book didn’t contain any inappropriate content, and returned it to the library. No ban was imposed. But the return of the book didn’t ease my discomfort that it had been challenged in the first place.

Bindel and Craft present two starkly different cases: one is a transparent attempt to transform a total non-issue into an attack on free expression, the other demonstrates a real, if unfruitful, attempt by pressure groups to suppress a book on ideological grounds. The first is laughable, the second is disconcerting. Yet there is a surprising commonality: at the end of the story both books remained readily available, but the same language of censorship and book bans had been used to describe their treatment. The more I think about these two cases the more I find myself asking: what does ‘banned book’ actually mean?.And when should we raise the alarm?  In an attempt to answer these questions, I have charted some of the texts that have been targeted over the last century, to see what they have in common with contemporary issues. 

A key point in the history of banned books occurred exactly 100 years ago with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. The book took a liberal attitude to sex that ruffled prudish feathers, with Molly Bloom drawing particular criticism for such dirty thoughts as: ‘still he hasnt such a tremendous amount of spunk in him when I made him pull out and do it on me considering how big it is’. New York courts deemed the work obscene in 1921, and the UK would follow suit in 1923, criticising the work for its depictions of masturbation and female sexuality. The Home Office seized and destroyed books at the border, and anyone who attempted to purchase copies was fined. This was not the first, nor the most significant ban during this period, which was, in many ways, the high point of British censorship. D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow had already been banned for its depiction of sex, and Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness would follow in 1928 due to its portrayal of a (entirely chaste) lesbian relationship. In such a climate it wasn’t a surprise to anyone, Joyce included, that the state banned Ulysses.

A defining factor in calling this a ban is the fact that it had the explicit backing of the state. Unlike Bindel’s imaginary booksellers, the Home Office was actively using its power to prevent anyone from accessing Ulysses. This is part of why I find the Jerry Craft case so much more unsettling; if the suppression had succeeded, it would have been sanctioned by a board with the power to enforce its ruling across every school in a county. But at the same time, the range of any ban on New Kid would still have been radically smaller than that of Ulysses, to the point where we might question calling it a ban at all. The school board also has no power over private homes and business; the extent of any restriction is limited to school libraries. By comparison, the Ulysses ban ranged over nations, and extended into individual suitcases. Clearly state power plays a role in defining a book ban, but the form, range, and extent of this power is so variable that we can’t confidently say how important this role is.

In 1933 US courts would repeal their ban on Ulysses, with Britain following a few years later, but in the same year Ulysses was liberated in one part of the world a crowd was gathering at the Bebelplatz in Berlin to burn over 20,000 books, Ulysses among them. Materially, the destruction of books in Berlin hardly differs from the actions of the Home Office. In fact, we might argue that the attack on Ulysses in Germany was smaller in extent than in the UK, since the burning wasn’t officially sanctioned by the government but was organised by Deutsche Studentenschaft, a body of university students. Hitler’s ministry of propaganda wouldn’t officially ban any books until 1935, and even then it was oddly reluctant to ban books that contradicted Nazi ideology, often going so far as to reprimand local police and Gestapo units that seized books that weren’t banned. This is not to say that state power wasn’t a key enabler of book bans in Nazi Germany, but that its role was less direct than we might assume, especially when compared with Britain. And this raises the question: if the material means and state power behind the persecution of Ulysses in these countries was so similar, why is one embedded in historical memory as a signifier of evil and the other an anecdote of publication history?

A photo of Micha Ullman's sculpture, The Empty Library, a subterranean room of empty shelves embedded in a Berlin street.

I believe the answer lies in the reasons behind these bans. As in the UK, alleged obscenity was a factor in Germany, where the existing restrictions on pornophraphy only became more severe as the Nazis seized power. But it was not the primary driver for Ulysses’s destruction. While in Britain the ban would ultimately be repealed on the grounds that the work’s literary merit outweighed its obscenity, the Nazis saw the same modernist style and depiction of urban life as contrary to fascist ideology. Not only this but the work prominently figured a Jewish protagonist; for the Nazis Ulysses was not only politcally objectionable, but racially impure. Now we’ve moved away from the purely consequentialist terms of how a book is repressed, and begin to establish why as a key consideration when we talk about censorship. The UK and US bans on Ulysses were bad because they stoked a moral panic around literary obscenity, the German ban was far worse because it served to uphold Nazism; it was not just about which words are acceptable, but which ideas and which people are too.

Looking back on Jerry Craft, I can see another similarity emerging. It is important to be clear here that one school board temporarily removing a library book is not directly comparable to Nazis; to claim so would be a misrepresentation of both cases as well as an injustice to those murdered by fascism. Rather, I want to focus on how the difference in reasoning behind the British and German book bans informs how we judge the Craft case. New Kid was removed in the first place not because of any specific content, but because parents had alleged it taught critical race theory: a nebulous claim which isn’t evidenced by the book itself. This leads to the conclusion that the book was challenged not because it was actually obscene or inappropriate for children, but because a story profiling a black perspective was automatically politically suspect to the Texan conservatives. Like Deutsche Studentenschaft they challenged a work on the grounds of political ideology propped up by racism. That the challenge failed is a relief, that it happened in the first place is terrifying. 

The defeat of the Nazis in 1945 may have brought an end to one specific form of censorship, but the story of banned books didn’t end. And the way it continues in different places and different forms after the war only leaves more questions to be answered.

Part Two:

“Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well”

 – Helen Keller, 1933

When I talked about banned books from 1922-45 the narrative was unambiguous: state power was being used to prevent books circulating, and looking at the reasons for these bans they were easy to criticise because they were driven by reactionary moral panic and racist ideology. But this line of thought around the reasoning for bans opens up a more complicated question. Is there ever a good reason for a book ban? Julie Bindel seems to argue no; to her, even an imagined effort to restrict a book is a ‘disgrace’. The law appears to agree: Ulysses made it to Britain in 1936, The Well of Loneliness followed in 1949, and after Lady Chatterly’s Lover was ruled ‘not obscene’ in 1960 the number of prosecutions on grounds of obscenity has steadily dwindled. However, while the post-war forces of liberalisation worked on one front, suppression continued on others..

One of the most controversial books of all time is William Powell’s The Anarchist’s Cookbook, a manual on various illicit activities including phone hacking, drug production, and bomb making. It is not the first, or even a particularly useful manual on improvised weapons, but it is the most famous, and it raises the question on whether it’s okay to ban a book for public safety. The British government says so; in 2007 an 18 year-old was found guilty under the Terrorism Act for possessing a book on bomb-making, even though he was acquitted of actually planning a terrorist attack. But in the US the question is more ambiguous; American freedom of speech has far more protection than in Britain, so popular weapons manuals are generally permitted to circulate. But that hasn’t stopped these books being used as evidence in US terrorism cases, and so far judges have been just as likely to uphold such arguments as overturn them. So even if you can’t be prosecuted for owning a book, it might still be used to mark you as a criminal.

A book titled 'The Anarchist Cookbook' sits on a wooden table accompanied by what looks like some kind of homemade explosive device

This leaves a rogue coordinate on our map of banned books. Certainly in terms of range and extent The Anarchist’s Cookbook occupies a similar position as Ulysses (at least in the UK), but it’s not as easy to say whether such restrictions are justified. A Waterstones employee not having time or space to prominently stock a particular item is easily justified; trying to remove a book from schools because it centres around a black protagonist, or the Home Office banning Ulysses in case women get ideas about being sexy isn’t. But when it comes to weapons manuals, the water is far murkier. On one hand, state power is suppressing a certain form of knowledge; simply being curious might put you on the wrong side of the law. But on the other hand, making such information readily available might put people at serious risk of harm. The more we dig through the history of banned books, the more difficult it becomes to parse exactly what level of restriction determines when a book is banned. Even if we figure that out, it’s still hard to tell whether such bans are justified.

And then there’s a final question and the last example in my history of banned books: can a book be under attack without there being a ban at all? This happened in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini, supreme leader of Iran, pronounced a fatwa, calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for his portrayal of the prophet Muhammad (عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ) in The Satanic Verses. This was, in a sense, a total inversion of the previous examples of censorship; the British government was actively protecting the life of an author and freedom of a book to circulate, while a small group violently campaigned for its censorship. In the following decade book shops would be bombed, Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered, the Norweigian publisher and Turkish translator barely survived similar attacks, but the book continued to circulate. So far, I have placed emphasis on the role of state power in defining censorship, but here it is absent.The situation bears a closer resemblance to Bindel’s imaginary Waterstones cartel than the Nazis burning Ulysses: a small group who found the work offensive working to make a book inaccessible. The difference being, of course, that booksellers really were hiding copies of The Satanic Verses for fear of reprisal, and the offended party was willing to use violence to achieve their ends. Yet I don’t think we can call what happened with The Satanic Verses a ban in any meaningful sense.  Even though it provoked a debate about censorship and offence, the government, publishers, and booksellers fought to protect the book’s availability. All the previous hallmarks of a ban slip away, and we’re left with another unexplained dimension to our topography of banned books, a potential zone in which a work is actively protected by the state and yet its distribution can still lead to extrajudicial violence.

A pile of once 'banned' books: Maus, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Ulusses and The Well Of Lonliness

Looking back over this map of banned books I’ve pieced together from these examples, it’s an absolute mess. I’ve asked questions of power, extent, range, reason, and justice, but however I orient my thinking I end up getting lost. There simply is no border post that tells us when we’ve crossed into the territory of banned books, the indicators involved are too numerous and uncertain. The conclusion is that we can’t easily spot a banned book, and by trying to do so I think we’re asking the wrong question. Determining whether a case counts as a ban risks looking at the books solely as objects, and assuming that a ban equals bad news and allowance means nothing to worry about. All of these incidents happened within a broader cultural context, and it’s what they say about that context that’s important. When the Nazis burned Ulysses it was not the inciting incident in a campaign of persecution, but a symptom of an evil that had already taken root in German society.  Banning The Well of Loneliness demonstrated a nationally entrenched homophobia. Even debate around The Anarchist’s Cookbook didn’t take place on pure safety grounds, but in a political climate that feared left-wing groups would utilise the same paramilitary resources that had been a staple of KKK violence for decades. In all these cases the restrictions imposed on the books are less important than what those restrictions say about the society that imposed them. 

“You can’t ban books unless you’re willing to burn them and you can’t burn them all unless you’re willing to burn the writers and the readers too.”

–  Art Spiegelman, 2022

About a week after I sent the initial pitch for this article, discussion of banned books reached new heights as a Tennessee school board voted to remove Art Spiegelman’s Maus from its curriculum. I’d like to conclude by applying everything we’ve just discussed to this case, and working out whether we should be concerned. In terms of range and extent maybe not: the decision affects (at most) 7 schools in a small part of Tennessee, and schools take books off their curriculums all the time. However, the reason for the ban is more ambiguous; a lot of debate has accused McMinn county of erasing a Jewish telling of the Holocaust in an effort to sanitise history, meanwhile the board argues that 8 swear words and 1 panel of nudity make it inappropriate for the classroom. Reading the minutes, it appears that the board are sincere in stating the latter; the whole document reeks of bureaucratic incompetence rather than malice. If I had to make a judgement about the case alone, I’d probably say that this was a group of busybody directors who, in their idiocy, panicked to see swearing on the curriculum and ended up removing one of the most important books about the Holocaust ever written. However, such a judgement ignores the broader context. Both the American Library Association and the ACLU have stated that 2021 was a record year for challenges to books in schools, with texts dealing with racism and LGBTQ+ issues persistently facing backlash from conservatives. 4 states have already banned positive portrayals of homosexuality in public schools, and a further 29, Tennessee included, have passed or are currently examining legislation to ban critical race theory, effectively outlawing any discussion of racism. In such a context whether or not what happened in McMinn county really counts as a ban becomes irrelevant. It is part of a growing pattern in which portrayals of social and historical issues that make conservatives uncomfortable are being shut down, and a status quo which others queer and non-white people is reinforced. Against such a climate, the removal of texts like Maus should put everyone on edge. It is a stark reminder that books help us engage critically with the world. Their removal is something to rebel against not because we’re losing the book as an object, but because it represents an attempt to control which voices and values shape our understanding of the world. The move against Maus, small as it may be, is a symptom of larger injustices that the text itself can help us challenge. The issue is never really the bans themselves, a ban can mean anything and as hard as the bad actors may try, someone will always get there hands on the book. All the ban does is exposes the injustice that was already there; it is this injustice we need to be alert to, because when the books start disappearing, it may already be too late.

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