Why you should care
Because intellectual freedom is more important than ever.
When the Nazis first started burning books, Sigmund Freud saw it as a positive thing — even though, as a Jewish author, his books were systematically thrown atop the pyre. The famed psychoanalyst knew, after all, that things could have been a lot worse.
His reasoning? “ ‘Look, we’re becoming more civilized: We’re burning books, not people,’ ” says James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. But Freud would soon be disillusioned, when, shortly thereafter, “the Nazis started burning people too,” LaRue adds.
Nazi book burnings, which aimed to purge Jewish culture and other ideas that threatened Nazism, are perhaps the best lesson of how the persecution of ideas can inspire more violent persecution. “If you look at the history of book burning … it’s not so much violence as intimidation,” LaRue explains. “But when you burn a book, it sure feels like violence.”
Unfortunately, such violence is far from rare. Take a look at the examples below:
The Satanic Verses
On Aug. 3, 1989, Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh accidentally blew himself up in a London hotel while preparing a bomb meant for British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie. One year earlier, Rushdie had published The Satanic Verses, a comic novel that explores the bizarre, confusing journey of migrating from India to the West. But the Islamic Republic of Iran wasn’t laughing. Tehran viewed the book as blasphemous and issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. Rushdie survived multiple attempts on his life and was constantly guarded by Scotland Yard police. His Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, wasn’t so lucky; he was stabbed to death in 1991.
During Timbuktu’s golden age (c. 1400–1500), the West African trading-post city flourished with Islamic scholarship. It was a center for learning throughout the continent, and libraries in the Malian city amassed an impressive volume of texts, which Islamic fundamentalists, who invaded Timbuktu in 2013, saw as an affront. “They viewed these texts as sacrilegious, as things that shouldn’t be part of an Islamic state,” says Peter Tinti, a journalist based in Mali at the time. Tinti recalls how al-Qaida factions burned the texts as part of a wider struggle to impose their will on Malians who did not subscribe to their radical interpretation of Islam. Fortunately, the Malians in Timbuktu had digital backup, so while the physical copies were destroyed, their content was not.
1984 and Animal Farm
George Orwell’s novels — one dystopian, the other allegorical — are famous for their satire. But some viewed his plots as literal, spurring schools to ban Orwell from high school reading lists. In Jackson County, Florida, in 1981, 1984 was challenged on the grounds that the novel was “pro-communist,” according to the ALA. In Panama City, Florida, Bay County schools banned Animal Farm in 1987; in the 1960s, the novel had been challenged in Wisconsin and New York State.
“There have been strong pushes by people to say Animal Farm is socialist … that this is a political attempt to take over public schools,” says LaRue. Paranoia about Orwell’s books is nothing new: He wrote Animal Farm during World War II, and the British worried that publishing it could threaten their foreign relations with then-ally Russia. Even after the war ended, many publishers avoided the book because of the controversy they believed it could stir. The very idea of a public institution banning Orwell’s novels has an ironic twist, seeing as the writer dedicated his life to fighting totalitarianism.
Harry Potter series
In 2001, Jack Brock of New Mexico–based Christ Community Church called on his followers to purge themselves of books and other materials that kept them from communicating with God. At the top of Brock’s list? J.K. Rowling’s books about a boy wizard.
“There are six reasons books usually get banned from public school reading lists: magic, profanity, religion, sex, race and parental authority,” notes Steven Herb, director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry proved too risqué for Brock. Calling the books “a masterpiece of satanic deception,” the pastor ordered his flock to toss their copies onto a bonfire.
Rowling has responded to book burnings targeting her work by stating that “not once has a child come up to me and said, ‘Ms. Rowling, I’m so glad I’ve read these books because now I want to be a witch.’ ”
The Handmaid’s Tale
In 2006, a Texas high school superintendent banned Margaret Atwood’s dystopian, feminist tome from an AP English reading list after a parent complained that the book was sexually explicit and offensive to Christians (the decision was reversed later that year). That was neither the first nor the last time that Atwood’s seminal work, about a futuristic American society that forces fertile women into sexual servitude, has been banned. Since it was first published in 1985, the novel has been a staple on the ALA’s top 10 challenged books list. According to Herb, the attention The Handmaid’s Tale has received may have only boosted its popularity.
“One of the sure ways to get kids to read a book is to try to stop kids from reading a book,” Herb points out. Taking it off the required reading list, in other words, is “likely going to have the reverse effect.”