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Burning Books

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

A job that I set myself at this time of year is to curate a list of books that I'd like to read over the next twelve months. This year I have restricted my list to those books that I already own.

It was when doing this task that I realised how lucky I was. I have compiled a list of 46 books (including several that I wish to re-read) from my accumulated books. Some have harshly suggested that by my collection of books, I am displaying a compulsive condition. I think it is an indication of how much I love books and how fortunate I am to be able to collect them.

It also caused me to pause and think about those countries where some books are banned. The term 'those countries' sounds like banning books only occurs in despotic regimes far away, but book banning occurs everywhere.

Some regimes even go as far as burning books that they deem unsuitable. The Nazis notoriously burnt books (250,000 in one day in the 1930s), and so did a politicised mob in Sri Lanka (97,000 at the Jaffna Library, May 1981). The appalling incident in Jaffna and the 1871 quote from Heinrich Heine, 'where one burns books, one will soon burn people,' are both referred to in my novel 'Darwin’s Wake'.

While burning books is an extremely visual and violent act, governments banning books is a form of systematic censorship that is often a precursor to other demonstrations of coercive control. Australia is not immune to this behaviour and continues to ban books. Books culled by the censors include; 'Brave New World' (1932-1937) by Aldous Huxley, 'The Stud' (1969 -?) by Jackie Collins and 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' (1929- 1965) by D.H. Lawrence. I suspect Huxley's book was collateral damage from fears of 'creeping communism'. The other two resulted from being termed 'obscene' (an ill-defined reason listed for others too). Surely, none of these three would be ban-worthy today. Other books have more apparent reasons for being banned in Australia. 'The Anarchists Cookbook' (first banned in 1971) on making explosives and illicit drugs at home and 'How to Make Disposable Silencers' (1984) remain on the banned list. Does the internet make banning books irrelevant?

Books banned in other countries include anything by Albert Einstein (1901-1938, in Austria), 'The Satanic Verses' by Salman Rushdie (in Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia and many others), Peyton Place (1956-1958, in Canada), 'Jayne Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte and 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lewis Carrol (in China, from publication to current). Even childhood classics 'Ivanhoe' by Sir Walter Scott and 'Oliver Twist' by Charles Dickens were once burnt in Germany for depicting Jewish characters.

Some books seem to have mistakenly been placed on lists until the truth appears. 'The Bible' (written in Spanish) was banned, as it 'was meant only to be read in Latin' and 'Ferdinand the Bull', a children's story about a peaceful bull, deemed to be spreading pacifism at the time of the Spanish Civil War.

The list of banned books above may make you think that book banning is restricted to bygone days, a sad indictment of past, less-enlightened generations. Sadly, this is not the case. In the United States, the 2021-22 school year saw more than 1,600 book titles banned from school libraries (reported by CBS News, Nov 22). Titles included 'The Handmaid's Tale', 'The Kite Runner' and the Harry Potter series. It is heartening to see a contrary movement rising, where bookshops that focus on books that are (or have been banned) are featured.

Closer to home for me the Subiaco Library in Perth, Western Australia is featuring a 'Banned Book Exhibition'. Titles include 'American Psycho' by Brett Easton Ellis and 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov (which is still banned in New Zealand). There are also more outlandish titles in the display, including Dr Suess' book 'Hop on Pop', banned for allegedly inciting violence against fathers!

As I curate my list for 2023, I find comfort that the censors' prejudice has not diminished the titles I can choose from and that (for the most part) we live in a country where the authorities trust the general public to determine what is worth reading (or not).

Photo credits:

Burning books. Free stock ‘Fahrenheit 451’.

Bookstore.: Jeffery Greenberg vias Getty Images.

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