The History of Book Banning

From Publishers Weekly:

As a historian of literacy, I coined the phrase “the literacy myth” to identify, explain, and criticize the former consensus that reading and writing (and sometimes arithmetic) are sufficient in themselves, regardless of degree of proficiency or social context, to transform the lives of individuals and their societies.

In late 2021, I’m confronted with an unprecedented “new illiteracy”—another version of the ever-shifting literacy myth. The historical continuities are shattered by, first, the call to ban books in innumerable circumstances; second, the banning of written literature without reading it; and, third, calls for burning books. This constitutes a movement for illiteracy, not a campaign for approved or selective uses of reading and writing.

Banning books from curricula, erasing them from reading lists, and ridding them from library shelves has mid-20th-century precedents; the burn books movement does not. Nor does the banning of books without censors reading them to identify their offending content.

Banning books is an effort, unknowingly, to resurrect the early modern Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation against both radical Catholics and early Protestants, which attempted to halt unauthorized reading, including curtailing the ability of individuals to read for themselves. Then seen as a “protest,” individual access to written or printed texts was perceived as threatening in ways that controlled oral reading to the “masses” by a priest or other leader was not. It enforced orthodoxy and countered both collective and individual autonomy.

The similarities and differences between today and a half millennium ago are powerful. Both movements are inseparable from ignorance, rooted in fear, and expressed in both legal and extralegal struggles for control and power. Both are inextricably linked to other efforts to restrict free speech, choice and control over one’s body, political and civil rights, public protests, and more.

Once led by the established church, censorship crusades to ban written materials of all sorts are today supercharged by right-wing politicians, radical evangelicals, and supporting activists. In the eyes of some, these politicians are opportunistic.

Despite media comments and condemnation by professors, teachers, librarians, and First Amendment attorneys, these issues are poorly understood. Parents of school-age children are confused. The young, supposedly in the name of their protection, face the greatest threat to intellectual and psychological development. That danger is most severe for the racially and gender diverse, who see themselves being erased or banned.

This movement harkens back well beyond the “ban books” and “read banned books” movements of the 1950s and ’60s, with their obsession with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Even Anthony Comstock, secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who tried to use the U.S. Postal Service to limit the circulation of obscene literature and destroyed books, did not aim to empty libraries.

Compare this history to efforts in Virginia to ban Nobel Prize– and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Toni Morrison’s classic novels The Bluest Eye and Beloved. Or Texas school districts’ ban of young adult novelist Ashley Hope Perez’s award-winning Out of Darkness, based on a single paragraph taken out of context. In all these cases, the new illiterates either do not, or cannot, read the supposedly offending texts.

Perhaps the most revealing example is Republican Texas state representative Matt Krause’s campaign stunt of releasing a list of 850 books that he wants to be “investigated” for some unspecified violations. He demands school superintendents provide him with lists of texts that deal with certain subjects relating to race and sex, a probably illegal fishing expedition.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG notes that the left wing can and does ban books and “deplatform” unpopular authors and speakers in the same manner and with at least the same frequency as the right wing does, at least in contemporary America.



verb (used with object)

to prohibit (a person or people) from sharing their views in a public forum, especially by banning a user from posting on a social media website or application:Some viewers boycotted the advertisers connected to the show in an effort to deplatform the controversial co-host.

17 thoughts on “The History of Book Banning”

  1. If I recall correctly, the deliberate burning of books, scrolls, and other documents goes back farther than the Reformation/Catholic-Reformation (or Counter-Reformation). Nor is it limited to the Western tradition, at least if you take certain Chinese historians at their word.

    Neither of which excuses people who want to ban/burn materials without having read them (certain illegal-by-US-law materials excepted. Perhaps.)

    • Mohammed’s boys did their share of “blasphermous” infidel scroll burning back in the 7th and 8th centuries. Today they get kudos for not destroying *all* traces of Hellenistic culture, although most of what made it to western europe was preserved by Byzantium.
      Go figure.

      • …which sort of passes over the complexity that “Europe” itself (largely-but-far-from-exclusively instigated by/through certain elements of the Catholic hierarchy, becoming institutionalized not later than about 420 CE and building on top of Rome’s own efforts) had put “Hellenistic” culture at risk in the first place.

        Think for a moment about this: How much real responsibility — for some internally-consistent meaning of that word — does Culture A have for preserving the historical documents, artifacts, and/or knowledge of Culture B, especially when Culture A does not occupy/conquer the territory of Culture B? My point is that this is a complex question, not that I have an answer. That, however, is precisely what’s at issue in considering preservation and/or destruction of Hellenistic culture by/through early Islam (as influenced, or not, by Persian aspects and now we’re really getting into some reflexive and self-fulfilling-prophetic aspects).

        Presuming that we can even define “Hellenistic culture” in a non-20/200-hindsight fashion in the first place… and that such a definition matches what was in front of those considering which scrolls to burn. We really haven’t come very far from the battle in St James’s Library last Friday, have we?

        (We’ll leave aside any questions about whether there are parts of “Hellenistic culture” that we’d be better off having avoided in the first place; that’s a different, at-least-equally-complex inquiry that one can point to by asking about the real reason that Socrates “had to die.”)

        • The last one is easy: he was a cranky obnoxious challenge to the accepted consensus who wouldn’t accept banishing.

          One aspect of hellenistic culture I occasionally regret is the public service justifiable homicide. Especially of urban music inflictors. 😀

    • And your point is? The idea that the only threats to free speech and such come from one side of the political spectrum is an exceedingly pernicious one.

      It is always unpleasant to be reminded that your side has bad actors; it is, however, necessary to maintain proper perspective.

  2. It’s kinda funny when people talk about getting out of Facebook jail. Here’s the slippery slope: Social media deplatforming. Banning books. Canceling advertisers for certain media. What’s next? People will be banned from the internet. A technological block like an ankle bracelet for their thought crime.

  3. I must disagree with something that Our Gracious Host said, at the end of his piece:

    PG notes that the left wing can and does ban books and “deplatform” unpopular authors and speakers in the same manner and with at least the same frequency as the right wing does, at least in contemporary America.

    Evidence, please (especially for the “at least the same frequency” claim)? And, in particular, coherent/consistent definition of “deplatform” used to establish the evidentiary basis, please?

    I’m willing to be convinced. I’ll freely admit that there’s a lot of (purported)* left-wing criticism of some material that goes much too far, both substantively and rhetorically. I’ve seen little, if any, evidence that this systematically extends in a manner so effective as to be “deplatforming” from “odious person” to “disagreeable views” (and isn’t that an intellectually dishonest distinction in the first place). But then, my first career was supervised in large part by old-school political-appointee deplatformers (who were much more prone to emphasize not getting caught doing the deed than the current generation that revels in taking credit for it), so I’m always skeptical of these sorts of things.

    There’s too much “deplatforming”… which is a consequence of too much “platforming” in the first place. “Platforming” is just a particular manifestation of the argument from authority, and in classical logic that’s a fallacy and not something to be aspired to.

    * Sorry, but just because outsiders or those with other agendas identify something/someone as “left” doesn’t make them correct, any more than the chain of logic that “MLK Jr agreed with some aspects of the social theories associated with Marxism, therefore MLK Jr was a communist, therefore the entire civil rights movement is communist sympathizers and fellow travellers” (especially when put forth by a bunch of old white men in authority whose personal interests depended upon maintaining all aspects of the status quo, even — perhaps especially — those aspects that were the focus of the civil rights movement). I’m sick to death of tribalism masquerading as high principle.

    • Ditto.

      I have a slightly different question: I struggle to see much difference qualitative or quantitative between the McCathyist blacklist witchhunts and today’s cancel culture. Might it be too subtle for me?

      To me the absolutist orthodoxy of the left is no different than the absolutist orthodoxy of the right of generations past. (Or the next generation.)
      I see both as power grabs cloaked in highminded principle. Same song, different verse.

      Maybe it’s just me?

      • <sarcasm> So far, the only distinction I can see is that “cancel culture” doesn’t have the imprimatur of “Contempt of Congress for refusal to answer”* behind it. It’s fundamentally the same thing. And still has no decency. </sarcasm>

        * (for clarity, this is outside the sarcasm tags) Of course, that was back when individual committees purportedly had the authority to speak on behalf of the entire Congress in establishing contempt; when the law of use and absolute immunity was less-well delineated; and when there was no realistic means for the held-in-contempt/cancelled to crowdsource alternative funding to mitigate losses (or, as in the case of a disgrace to the commission who was later pardoned, jumpstart a new career as a talking head, and this is definitely outside the sarcasm tags)

          • The irony that any 51% of the McCarthy era resulted from preventing an awful lot of eligible voters from voting their consciences is just a bit much in this topic, given the political tinge to start with. And “machine politics” was as responsible for that as “Jim Crow,” as was the cultural discouragement of eligible women from voting independent of their husbands. In technical terms, it’s ugly.

            To only mildly corrupt Tom Lehrer — in a way, and on a topic, he would have approved of — we’re veering into the territory of a Christian Scientist with appendicitis here. I suggest, out of respect for this as a board for writers, that we sort of cut this aspect off…

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