In the US, 2023 has been the worst year for book bans since records on ban, with the LBGTQ+ community and people of colour being disproportionately targeted. Here, we look back at the long, troubling history of literary censorship
Last week, a video emerged that appeared to show two Republican senators in Missouri burning a pile of books with a flamethrower. Naturally, some people found this footage disturbing, a throwback to some of the most evil moments in modern history. But the initial reporting on the story turned out to be false: they were not burning books, but empty cardboard boxes. As one of the senators involved later explained, “In a video that is being widely circulated [...] I am taking a flamethrower to cardboard boxes representing what I am going to do to the leftist policies and RINO corruption of the Jeff City Swamp [Missouri’s state capital]. But let’s be clear, you bring those woke, pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I’ll burn those too.” So that’s reassuring!
Unfortunately, this was from a standalone incident. The US is currently facing an intense wave of book bans, which has been steadily worsening over the past two years. While this censorship drive was initially aimed at children, according to a new report by the American Library Association and PEN America (a non-profit dedicated to defending free speech), it’s increasingly affecting the adult sections of public libraries. Between January 1 and August 31 2023, the ALA found 695 attempts to censor library materials and documented challenges to 1,915 titles. This is a significant increase from last year, which was already the worst year on record since the ALA began compiling these figures over 20 years ago. The majority of books which have been challenged are either written by or about queer people and people of colour. During this same period, libraries have been deprived of funding and even received bomb threats, while individual librarians have been harassed, threatened and smeared as ‘groomers’.
People in power have always attempted to dictate what the public can read. In medieval times, the Catholic Church even banned people from reading their own copies of the Bible, and forbade it from being translated into languages other than Latin, which most people couldn’t understand. Within more recent history, banning books has remained a favoured tactic of repressive governments, from outright dictatorships to supposedly liberal democracies like the US and UK. Here is a brief history of this phenomenon.
BOOK BANS UNDER THE NAZIS
Nazi Germany is probably the most notorious book-banning regime in history. The government targeted any texts that challenged its ideology, which included books by Jewish authors and intellectuals; books that expressed democratic, pacifist or left-wing ideas; books that promoted the ‘wrong’ kinds of art, and those that concerned sexuality, gender and LGBTQ+ identities. In 1933, just months after Hitler took power, the first major Nazi book burning took place. The target was the Institute of Sex Research, a pioneering sexology centre which held over 20,000 works related to gay, trans and intersex subjects. The building was looted by a crowd of Nazi-supporting students, who hauled the contents of its library to a public square and then set them alight in a raucous ceremony. This event was a foretaste of the atrocities to come. As the German poet Henrich Heine later wrote, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well. Wherever books are burned, men in the end will also burn.”
THE ORIGINS OF BOOK BURNING IN THE USA
There has been a tradition of book bans in America since the time it was founded. In 1650, one author came under fire for advancing the scandalous notion that anyone could get into Heaven if they followed the teachings of Christ – this flew in the face of the dominant Puritan doctrine, which held that heaven was a treat reserved for a select few, and copies of the book were destroyed. Later, in the early to mid 19th century, several states in the American South banned books that opposed slavery, including Harriet Beech Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which is often criticised today for being racist in itself). According to historian Claure Parfait, the book was regularly burned in public along with other anti-slavery texts.
In the first half of the 20th century, censorship became more in American public schools. Many of the books targeted were viewed as promoting an unflattering view of American history (especially if they took a critical view of the pro-slavery, Confederate side in the Civil War). This is strikingly similar to what is happening in some US states today, including Florida, where legislative attacks on ‘critical race theory’ have made it impossible for schools to teach the history of slavery and racial oppression. Earlier this year, a teacher in South Carolina got into trouble for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (a book about race in America). She had violated a state law which forbids making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” on account of being white. In practice, this really means that students are prevented from learning about racism, which makes teaching American history quite tricky…
THE CENSORSHIP OF SEX
From the late 19th century onwards, censors began to prohibit books that concerned issues like birth control and homosexuality. In 1882, Leaves of Grass – a poetry collection by Walt Whitman that contains some not-so-subtle queer themes – was banned in Boston, on the grounds that it violated public obscenity laws: one local censor described the book as “a darling morsel of literary filth”, which makes it sound more cool than he perhaps intended.
In Britain, too, there is a long history of censors targeting “obscene” books, many of which are now considered peerless classics (like James Joyce’s Ulysses, banned from 1922 to 1936 or DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was the subject of a notorious obscenity trial in 1960). In 1984, Gay’s the Word (a storied LGBTQ+ bookshop in London) was raided by the police under an arcane piece of Victorian legislation. The state confiscated hundreds of imported titles, including novels by celebrated authors like Jean-Paul Sartre, Gore Vidal and Jean Genet. The shop’s owners were charged with “conspiracy to import indecent books”, although the charges were eventually dropped after a lengthy battle. From 1988 to 2003, under Section 28, it was illegal for schools and local authorities in Britain to “promote homosexuality”, which meant that, for all extents and purposes, young people were banned from reading LGBTQ+ books.
HOW BOOK BANS HAVE CHANGED OVER THE YEARS
Books about race and gender have been censored quite consistently, but times do change. In hindsight, many of the titles which were banned throughout the 20th century now seem absurdly wholesome. The Wizard of Oz, for example, was frequently banned in the US due to its strong female protagonist and alleged promotion of Marxist values (who could forget the timeless scene where the Tin Man denounces the Wizard as a ‘capitalist pig-dog’, sings “The Internationale” and then seizes the means of production in the Emerald City?). Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret?, a sweet-natured children’s novel about an 11-year-old girl, was banned because schools objected to its portrayal of female puberty and its treatment of religious themes. Even worse, The Diary of Anne Frank has been targeted countless times, usually due to the book’s depiction of puberty and hints at bisexual desire (unfortunately, this happened as recently as last week, when a teacher in Texas was fired for teaching a graphic novel adaptation.) Throughout the 00s, Harry Potter came under fire for its alleged promotion of witchcraft, Satanic worship and “anti-family themes”, but banning it seems to have fallen out of fashion: these days JK Rowling is admired by many on the religious right (thanks to her tireless feminist activism, of course!).
BOOK BANS TODAY AND TOMORROW
Throughout the past half century, people have pushed back against this climate of censorship. In 1982, a group of students in New York took their school board, the Supreme Court for banning books with “anti-American, anti-Christian” themes (including Kurt Vonnegut and the African-American poet Langston Hughes) and won their case. Around the same time, a group of librarians launched Banned Books Week, an annual event that continues to this day. But in the US, book bans have returned with a vengeance. Moral panics around trans people and ‘critical race theory’, along with the efforts of right-wing lobbying groups like Moms for Liberty, have led to a flurry of censorship. Out of the ten most challenged titles in 2022, the majority have some kind of LGBTQ+ theme. Also on the list is Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, singled out for its depiction of child sexual abuse and its “EDI content” (equality, diversity and inclusion). If there’s one cause for optimism, however, is that book bans are broadly unpopular with the American public, and could cost the Republicans votes in the 2024 election. Across the US, students, librarians and parents are taking a stand against censorship.
Today in Britain, outright book bans are uncommon, but the same end can be achieved through different means. You might not hear politicians calling for individual books to be banned (that would be uncouth!) but you do often hear them calling for the end of “gender ideology” and “critical race theory” being taught in schools, and the result would be much the same – certain texts would be made beyond the pale. This resurgence of censorship is worrying, but the internet has made it harder for the state to control young people’s access to information (although it seems like they’re going to try). The book bans ultimately come from a place of anxiety and weakness: they are concerned that young people do not share their regressive views on gender and race. They are correct about that, and that's why they will lose.