Humans are odd beasts especially when confronted with acts of transgression. When, for example, a rogue force unhinges the ideological glue that was so carefully applied to “fix” a specific social narrative. Unpredictable. Unorthodox. Dangerous. Three words that share a commonality among Green Eggs and Ham , Mein Kampf, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover along with thousands of other books that earned the status of banned.
But what exactly does it mean when a book is banned? The banning of books has a long reach in history including Thalia by Arius in 250 AD and more recently Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto’s Fist Fight in Heaven.
The etymology of the word ban is from Old English bannan or “to summon, command, proclaim” or from the German bannen “banish, expel, curse” and originally from bha “to speak publicly.” In the late 14th century, Old Norse banna was “to curse, prohibit … to speak or a threat.” In Old French ban was “outlawry and banishment” and the Germanic root is “banish, bandit, and contraband.” Implicit in the word’s language formation is the circulating power between, among, and within both the sovereign and the outlaw.
But how does it slip from the strategic minds of those who mark an object as outlawed or as banned that they are actually highlighting an already existing discourse and by branding it with the Scarlet Letter provokes instead, as if by magic, a desire for it? Hawthorne’s book, by the way, was also banned. An outlaw, of course, is a misnomer in that by marking something or someone as transgressor or “outside of” they remain always and more potently “inside” as a threat to the status quo. The Panopticon it seems, in its social architecture, will imprison those who watch and those who are watched. To ban is to recognize and to authorize an object’s power – it has the power to change to shift to effect to affect. The book is an object, a container filled with ideas and actions that are already circulating and have been circulating in other networks: from kitchens, to alleys, to libraries, classrooms, pubs, bedrooms, fields, living rooms, emails, graffiti, canvasses, music, t-shirts or no shirts, footwear, theft, charity, hacking, poisoning, hair styles, marginalia, picket lines, fires, buses, marches, leaving, bearing witness, to undocumented silences that say so much more than that which lies between any published covers. Why then is “the book” so dangerous? Perhaps because it forces individuals to slow down as explained in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly”(9).
The written word is proof. Permanent. A testament. An entry point. Social evidence. Militaristic in its very technology. A public declaration. Gutenberg did not only unleash the medium of print production but also a material potential of mass distribution to an unknown public, as Wilkie Collins categorized the growing demographic when criticizing nineteenth century penny press readers, who could escape marshaled codes of conduct by transgressing, without surveillance, in their own imaginations and their own will to think about stuff. Censorship is a state praxis of population control that enables fallacies such as unification, democracy, and security by delineating “the enemy” be it in a book, individual, group, or nation, but alternatively it also earmarks distinct and very real anxieties operating through and through social systems.
The recent banning of books in Arizona relating to Mexican-American history along with cutting Ethnic Studies by the Tucson Unified School District is an example of a very real social and political anxiety and fear that manifests in the 1,951 mile long barrier wall that travels across the U.S. Mexican border. It remains unsurprising that the state of the wall is called Operation Gatekeeper and that Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is among the books on the state’s banned list. Freire espouses a teaching philosophy that encourages students to think critically and for themselves by removing social hierarchies and educational barriers.
To ban anything or anyone by any measure makes socially explicit the relevancy and power of that which is cast out, while simultaneously revealing the fear and anxiety of those who dictate the order. The book is an object filled with static visual codes that are animated in the act of reading and thinking: a potentially dangerous action when individuals are left to their own devices to interpret words and meanings for themselves (The Reformation remains a significant example) or call into question state narratives held in place by a vast range of ideologies. Alas, what the history of book banning does make evident is that illicit books will be read and evaluated regardless perhaps to a greater degree than books that enter the status quo unchallenged. Humans are odd beasts especially in their desire to know (and more dangerously) that which they are forbidden to know or to do which includes the reading of the banned and the outlawed because it lets loose, especially in the unwatched confines of the mind, our desires, transgressions, and fears.
[T]hough all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644)
Among the titles included in the recent Arizona school banning is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The figures of Prospero and Caliban have undoubtedly released yet another post colonial allegory in Mexican-American relations, as well as inject new meaning into Caliban singing: “Ban, Ban, Ca-Caliban” (2.2.).
Other notable banned books include:
All Quiet on the Western Front (Enrich Maria Remarque, 1929)
Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)
Areopatitica (John Milton, 1644)
Black Beauty (Anna Sewell, 1877)
Candide (Voltaire, 1759)
Catch 22 (Joseph Heller, 1961)
The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003)
The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939)
Big River, Big Sea – Untold Stories of 1949 (Lung Ying-tai, 2009)
The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century)
The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank, 1947)
A Feast for the Seaweeds (Haidar Haidar, 1983)
Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1973)
Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss, 1960)
The Country Girls (Edna O’Brien, 1960)
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence, 1928)
Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler, 1925)
July’s People (Nadine Gordimer, 1981)
The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka, 1915)
American Psycho (Bret Easton Eillis, 1991)
The Rights of Man (Thomas Paine, 1791)
Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller, 1934)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)
Operation Dark Heart (Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, 2010)
The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer, 1948)
Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs, 1959)
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644).