This series on banned books is provided by the writers at Ultius and is one of the many writing features offered. It will demonstrate a general history of banning books over the course of human civilization and focus on the history of the practice of banning books, with specific discussion of four main historical periods:
- The ancient world
- The medieval era and the invention of the printing press
- Puritan America
- Nazi Germany
Specific reasons for and impacts of these time periods will be examined in order to better understand why each resorted to the practice of banning books.
Banning books in the ancient world
In the ancient world, banning books (where “book” is broadly understood as a written work of material and not a specific format) was a fairly easy thing to do. This was for the simple reason that the only way to reproduce a book was to transcribe the whole thing by hand—which meant that there were never very many copies in existence of any given book. As Mullally has indicated:
“In ancient times, when hand-scribed books existed in only one or a few copies, destroying them (usually by burning them) guaranteed that no one would ever read them” (paragraph 2).
In other words, there was no need for complex legal regulations, because banning books could be effectively achieved through the use of simple force. And of course, the culture of civilizations like Greece, Egypt and the rest of the ancient world was such that there was little respect for individual liberal rights: the powers that be could more or less do what they wanted in this regard.
The burning of Alexandria
The case of the burning of the great Library of Alexandria provides a good example of this method of banning books. Now, there is considerable debate about how this library came to an end, and who exactly was responsible for its demise. What the evidence would seem to make clear, though, is that
“contrary to myth, there wasn’t one great fire that destroyed the library, but instead several documented fires over a span of centuries. It seems likely, then, that the destruction of the library was gradual. The problem is that we have few contemporary accounts, and later writers often have some axe to grind” (SDStaff Dex, paragraph 12).
This is a reference to the fact that the demise of the Library of Alexandria has been variously attributed to Julius Caesar himself, later Christians who were uncomfortable with pagan knowledge, and Muslims who arrived in the city later still. In any event, though, it is clear that the burning of the Library effectively banned the books in those library from ever reaching an audience again. And this is for the simple reason that many of the works in that library could only be found in that library; there were no additional copies, digital backups, or the like.
The Gutenberg revolution
The practice of banning books changed fundamentally with the invention of the printing press. It was, of course, Johannes Gutenberg who was responsible for the creation of that machine within the context of the emerging modern world. The Chinese had already invented their own forms of the printing press much earlier; but as Palermo has pointed out,
“what really set Gutenberg apart from his predecessors in Asia was his development of a press that mechanized the transfer of ink from movable type to paper. Adapting the screw mechanisms found in wine presses, papermakers’ presses and linen presses, Gutenberg developed a press perfectly suited for printing” (paragraph 13).
The upshot is that it was now possible for people to print many, many copies of any book in a fairly quick and fairly inexpensive way.
The impact of the printing press on banning books
From the perspective of the practice of banning books, this effectively meant that it was no longer possible (as it was in the ancient world) to simply keep a book from the public by physically destroying the few original copies that existed, since now there would exist countless reproductions of the book, and possibly in the most unexpected of places. It is likely also at this point that the practice of burning books became primarily symbolic in nature, and not intended to have actual practical efficacy. As Motion (qtd. in Henley) has written:
“books are little encapsulations of human effort and wisdom and, I suppose, of our sense of history. So to burn one of any kind, and certainly one that is a representation of a culture and set of beliefs, is to appear to consign it to the flames of eternal damnation” (paragraph 12).
In the ancient world, to burn a book was often to literally send it into non-existence; in the modern, post-Gutenberg world, though, to burn a book has become more of the symbolic expression of the wish that the ideas contained in the book will one day become obsolete.
Martin Luther and the Reformation
One of the more dramatic cultural effects of the invention of the Gutenberg press was probably the Reformation inaugurated by Martin Luther. As Waugh has written:
“After more than sixty years of development and improvement, the printers of Luther’s era were able to publish his books, pamphlets, tracts, treatises, hymns, and his translation of the Bible into German” (paragraph 10).
This was obviously an essential part of Luther’s basic message that common people should be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, without reliance on the leaders of the Catholic Church: such a practice would have been impossible if the Bible could not reproduced, in large numbers and in a vernacular tongue. The Catholic Church essentially banned common people from reading the Bible by retaining the book primarily in the scholarly language of Latin. With the help of the printing press, though, Luther was able to break this stranglehold and move forward with his Reformation in a more effective way.
The people who first settled in the United States were by and large Puritans, and the Puritans (as their name would suggest) were primarily known for their highly rigid and rigorous moral code through religious leaders like William Bradford and Anne Hutchinson. They were responsible for the first instances of banning books within America. The first ever book that was banned here was written by Thomas Morton called New English Canaan and it was published in the year 1637. As Miller has written:
“Morton’s book was banned because it told his side in one of the pivotal battles for the cultural soul of the New World. Morton, a perpetual thorn in the side of the great Puritan patriarch William Bradford, represented the untamable ‘other’ of colonial America. When Morton set up his rival colony of Merry Mount in close proximity to Bradford’s Plymouth Plantation and invited the Indians and escaped indentured servants to join him, all hell broke loose” (paragraph 3).
Clearly, then, the Puritans of early America considered Morton to be a threat to their entire society and way of life; and this is why they banned his book.
Banning stems largely from fear
This calls attention to the fact that America has been driven by strongly moral considerations from the start, and that different stakeholders within the nation have always seen themselves as engaged in a culture war where what is at stake is the very definition of the soul of the nation. When people in the contemporary day call (for instance) for the banning and/or burning of the Quran, they are not doing something all that different from what the early Puritans did when they called for the ban of Morton’s book.
They are perceiving a threat to their entire way of life (in this case, the threat would be Islam) and they are attempting to counter that threat by attacking the most important book of the rival’s way of life. These days, though, it is harder for people in America to actually get a book banned simply due to personal prejudice, as a result of legal developments that have emerged over time.
A landmark ruling
One of the most important court decisions in this regard can probably be found in the U.S. Supreme Court Case Board of Education, Island Tree School District v. Pico. In this 1982 case, the Court (qtd. in Mullally) found that
“local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books” (paragraph 1).
This is essentially a reversal from the action taken by the Puritans back in the seventeenth century against Morton, when his book was banned precisely because the Puritans just disliked the contents of that book. But then, that was before the United States was even a nation yet, and before the right to free speech was enshrined in the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution.
These days in America, a book must be shown to be a real and immediate threat to the physical safety of the public before it becomes plausible to even consider banning it. (And this is the same basic restriction placed on free speech in general.) In this respect, then, it can be suggested that America has learned from its mistakes and grown at least a little wiser over time.
Nazi Germany was infamous for its book-banning campaigns which exemplified the repression of the Nazi party. As Henley has written:
“On the night of 10 May 1933, a crowd of some 40,000 people gathered in the Opernplatz . . . Amid much joyous singing, band-playing and chanting of oaths and incantations, they watched soldiers and police from the SS . . . burn, at the behest of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, upwards of 25,000 books decreed to be ‘un-German'” (paragraph 1).
This is fully congruent with the fact that Nazism was a movement animated by primitive ideals of race, blood, and purity: the “un-German” literature that was burned was conceptualized as literally being a kind of subtle filth that was weakening the spirit of the German people. Of course, works by Jewish authors were very high on the list of books to be burned.
This was backed up by legal regulations that prohibited the possession or transmission of such works within Nazi Germany, since again, in the modern age, it would simply be logistically impossible to literally destroy every single extant copy of any given work.
Germany bans Mein Kampf
Interestingly, in the post-Nazi era, Germany imposed a ban on Hitler’s own book Mein Kampf, as a way of symbolically repudiating the nation’s own dark past and rather focus upon humanitatrians of the age such as Irena Sendler and Oskar Schindler. This did not exactly prevent people who wanted to read the book from getting their hands on it, but it did make it somewhat more difficult, and the symbolic posture of Germany as a whole was important all the same.
Recently, though, the ban on the book has expired, and it has become legal to publish in Germany to publish it again. There has some concern that this could spur a contemporary resurgence of Nazism. One way or the other, though, it is probably for the best that the book is no longer banned. Among other things, it would seem that the book is not really all that good. As Gopnik has humorously put it:
“Hitler, whom we suspect of being an embittered, envious, traumatized loser, presents himself as . . . an embittered, envious, traumatized loser” (paragraph 4).
Banning a book always lends it a certain kind of forbidden charm; and in this case, it would likely be better to simply laugh at the book, as opposed to granting it the honor of actually bothering to ban it.
Gopnik, Adam. “Does ‘Mein Kampf’ Remain a Dangerous Book?” New Yorker. 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 6 Apr. 2016. .
Henley, Jon. “Book-Burning: Fanning the Flames of Hatred.” Guardian. 10 Sep. 2010. Web. 6 Apr. 2016. .
Miller, Jim. “America’s First Banned Book and the Battle for the Soul of the Country.” San Diego Free Press. 22 Sep. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2016. .
Mullally, Claire. “Banned Books.” First Amendment Center, 13 Sep. 2002. Web. 5 Apr. 2016. .
Palermo, Elizabeth. “Who Invented the Printing Press?” Live Science. 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2016. .
SDStaff Dex. “What Happened to the Great Library of Alexandria?” The Straight Dope. 6 Dec. 2005. Web. 6 Apr. 2016. .
Waugh, Barry. “The Importance of the Printing Press for the Protestant Reformation, Part Two.” Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Oct. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2016. .