Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lists of banned books

Since there are books, there are fools who destroy them. And even fools who destroy authors so that they cannot write any more books or spread their works. The history of book destruction is long and shameful, and many scholars have studied these foolishness and atrocities. If you are interested in this subject, you can read A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, by the eccentric and ever curious historian Fernando Báez. This book comprises the destruction of libraries in Alexandria, Pergamon, Babylonia, Rome, Greece and China, as well as book destruction in Bagdad from Genguis Khan’s invasion to George Bush’s invasion, and also the massive burning of books (and authors) during the Counter-Reformation.
Besides destruction, there is another way (more subtle but equally efficient) to get rid of a book: forbidding it by including it in a list of banned books. Among all lists of banned books, the better known is the Index librorum prohibitorum –that is, the list of books banned by the Catholic Church. It is not a medieval list as many people may think. This list was first published in 1559, during the Council of Trent. It was not published before because it was not necessary: before the printing revolution, there were not many copies of books and not many people who could read them. Moreover, the original purpose of this list was restraining the Protestant Reformation spreading around Europe by that time (and urging that Council).
Many people also think that this index included all the books which should not be read, according to the Catholic Church, but this is not true either: it included only those books which readers may not realise to be contrary to catholic doctrines. Books by atheist authors or books contrary to Catholicism were immediately destroyed and it was not necessary to include them in this index. In 1948 the last edition of this index was published, containing 4,000 books. If you take a look at it (you can find a link below) you’ll realise that most of these books were great novels of the 19th century. The reason for their banning is simple: either explicit sex (or what was considered explicit sex by the church, although teenagers today would define it as cuddling and spooning), or non-Christian behaviour, or “wrong” political ideas… Up until 1961, some more books were added to this list but in 1966 it was left aside for good.
Therefore, it seems that having lists of banned books belongs to the past… but nothing further from the truth. An example: this website of former members of Opus Dei shows a list of banned books by this prelature, with a rating for readable books, books which can only be read with a special license by the diocese, books which can only be read with a license by the prelate and banned books. Also, there are reading comprehension worksheets for some hundred books (banned or readable) about doctrine and moral values. I don’t know if this reading comprehension material has any effects on target readers, but I had two wonderful sleepless nights.
Anyway, it is not a serious case because, after all, people can become a member or leave Opus Dei willingly. However, when censorship comes from public administrations, even in democratic countries, it gets serious. There are many examples, including this map of the US in which the American Library Association (ALA) spotted 348 cases of banned books by town councils, public libraries, schools, etc. Such banning is motivated for many reasons, including the representation of homosexual or atheist characters. Some other reasons seem to be more “reasonable”: books with racist or sexist comments. But if we follow these criteria, many great works of universal literature should be banned. It is nonsense: no book should be banned even if its contents are reprehensible. Therefore, in 1982 the ALA launched the Banned Books Week, which is held every year in the US with the objective to give voice and visibility to banned books. As the linguist Noam Chomsky says, "if we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all"

Fernando BAEZ, A Universal History of the Destruction of Books
Last edition of the Index librorum prohibitorum in 1948:
About the Council of Trent, in which the index and other counter-reform measures were taken:
The Protestant Reformation:
List of books banned by Opus Dei (in Spanish):
Map of banned books in the US:,-96.503906&spn=32.757579,56.25&z=4
American Library Association website:
Banned Books Week:



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