Thousands of years ago, the phrase ‘death of the author’ took on an entirely unfortunate – and much more literal – meaning, when Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang is said to have buried alive Confucian scholars in order to maintain control of all historical writing in his time. By 212 BC, every book of that time was burned, save for a single copy for his library, which was later destroyed in order to make it seem that history began with him and him alone.
Perhaps this is the earliest event when authorities sought to control the flow of information on a literary scale; certainly, it remains one form of censorship that is intimately familiar up to this day.
In many cases – particularly concentrated in America – censorship of reading materials tends to be demanded by concerned parents or community members whose gut reaction to a text is to entirely remove the public’s access to it.
Why is there such a visceral, violent fear upon reading something that provokes the firm decision that it is best to be removed at once?
Ink, penned on paper, and printed words do not have the ability to climb out of the comfort of their pages and murder people in their sleep. A peek at a paragraph or more does not have the capability to drive humans over the chasm of madness, a la Leitners from The Magnus Archives or the lost play The King in Yellow. It is not the ruins of a Carcosa so beautiful and horrifying that is it joy and terror that burns the hands that scoop it out of the coals, weeping and laughing in revelation, like twin suns into the lake of Hali, like the Pallid mask entrenched in the minds of those who barely comprehend the words to imagine it (paraphrased from “The Repairer of Reputations” by Robert Chambers).
Yet by the way that some refer to it, it may as well be either supernatural or malevolent in nature.
Whether a catalyst of a religious, political, or radicalised viewpoint, there have been numerous instances of alterations or removal of certain texts or books in literature. Sometimes they are even slated for outright destruction. The latter conjures thoughts of mass book burnings in Nazi Germany or the destruction of the Sarajevo’s National Library – smoke and flames leaping in the night sky, soot and ash-stained pages, ink melting, shrivelling and undone to the cheers and silence that lingers like a hungry, shattered maelstrom. It is a powerful, painful image – one that lingers up to this day.
But as time turns and ages towards the present, it is becoming increasingly clear to see the discrepancies and the strangeness of the ‘why’ behind the ban. In Rome, A.D. 8, it was the poet Ovid that got rather impressively triple-banned for his work Ars Amatoria – The Art of Love – in Rome itself. It was then banned in Florence during 1497 and by U.S. customs in 1928 due to the heavily suggestive themes throughout. On the other hand, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was banned by the Soviet Union for ‘occultism’. Then there is Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, which was oddly enough challenged for its ‘portrayal of only middle-class rabbits’.
The reasons cited are ludicrous, and continue to be even more so as this trend continues.
Recently, the latest controversy is the attempted sanitisation of many of Roald Dahl’s books. The Roald Dahl Story Company (RDSC) – now owned exclusively by Netflix – states their rewriting of these books as a way to ensure that the stories ‘continue to be enjoyed by all children today’.
Some of these edits are slight, like the replacement of ‘old hag’ to ‘old crow’ in The Witches. Others are an attempt at sensitivity and falling short, like changing ‘black’ to ‘dark’ and ‘attractive’ to ‘kind’ when the connotations are neither harmful nor racial in context.
Many are deeply unnecessary, like the replacement of ‘man-eating giant’ to ‘human-eating giant’ in The BFG, ‘Cloud-Men’ becoming ‘Cloud-People’ in James and the Giant Peach and the downright deviation of women described as supermarket cashiers and letter-writers becoming rewritten as top scientists and business owners.
In Matilda, even the mention of Rudyard Kipling, English novelist, is replaced with Jane Austen, due to Kipling being labelled a colonist, racist and misogynist.
From this event, there are two terrifying take-aways.
First, the fact that these changes began to quietly appear more than a year ago without garnering any sort of immediate or significant attention.
Secondly, the precedence set for the allowance of posthumous editing to suit the needs of what is defined as socially acceptable for the era.
Taking into account the gradual shift from physical books to e-books, there remains the very real possibility that this will become a new medium whereby censorship will be able to thrive more easily.
There is the pre-existing belief that the very act of banning a book may rocket into a contradictory scenario – one in which the popularity is increased as there is a clamouring by readers everywhere to get their hands on a copy. While it is certainly true that there have been events whereby the prohibition of a book has directly led to it spreading among readers, it does not detract from the reality of what it is. Many indie authors, or those who aren’t as well-established, are vulnerable to the consequence of such a ban. As per the statistics of the American Library Association itself, 82 to 97% of book challenges are unreported. The overwhelming majority doesn’t make it to the headlines.
How easy it would be for book titles to disappear overnight, words overwritten and erased from the very traces of history.
Then the question is this – when will the line be crossed?
When will F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or countless others be decided as no longer palatable for the current era, earning them an active and systematic cleanse?
Is it shame in looking back, in the inability to accept the past for what it was, or is it the desire for control?
Censorship and bans have become yet another tool to influence and maintain sway, being capable of painting the history to the one that someone out there deluded themselves into thinking is the best version there is. History may not necessarily repeat, but like a stanza, it rhymes – condemnation through elimination, extending all the way back from the Roman world in its practice of damnatio memoriae.
According to the words of Isaac Asimov, “any book worth banning is a book worth reading”.
And according to a famous quote attributed to Stephen King, “Run, don’t walk, to the nearest non-school library or to the local bookstore and get whatever it was that they banned. Read whatever they’re trying to keep out of your eyes and your brain, because that’s exactly what you need to know.”
Below is a readily available starter pack of prominent books that have been challenged frequently.
1) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” Ray Bradbury once famously wrote. “Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of a well-read man?”
A fireman, a book and a fire. Guy Montag is a fireman living in the remnants of a bygone age, whose duty is to set fires and destroy the written word.
Fahrenheit 451 is terrifyingly, breathtakingly a powerful look at humanity’s urge to suppress what it does not understand.
Tun Hussein Onn Sunway Library Call Number: PA6522.A2 A78 1999
2) Animal Farm by George Orwell
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
A farm taken over by its mistreated animals, who set out to create a paradise for themselves, fueled by idealism and hope. A stage set for a terrible descent, from tyranny to revolution and back to tyranny once more.
Once written as a political fable of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, Orwell’s book serves a haunting reminder that, whatever the stage, whoever the players, the oppressed or the oppressors, this tale of absolute power that corrupts is doomed to repeat.
Tun Hussein Onn Sunway Library Call Number: PR6029.R8 A59 2013
3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
“We gained control of many things, but we had to let go of others.”
A life without colour, pain or past. A life without choice, without disease, without jealousy or envy. Eleven-year-old Jonas’s world is one of peace, serenity and safety. Then he discovers the price of that peace – the sickening, heartbreaking reality of what perfect harmony really costs.
Lowry’s novel is an exploration of how the manifestation of fear of choice plays out, that to unravel one string is to remove them all. That, in living a painless life, it becomes one without purpose or meaning. It becomes one without colour.
Tun Hussein Onn Sunway Library Call Number: PS3562.O923 G53 1993
4) The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
“You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”
In the aftermath of World War I, they wander. Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, alongside a group of young expatriates, find themselves journeying all the way from the throbbing nightlife of Paris in the 1920s to the bullfighting rings of Spain in often joyless revelry.
“You are all a lost generation,” Hemingway remarks as a bitter, fitting epigraph for the book. It deals with the disillusionment of war, of what it means to slip through the cracks of an after, to be lost and cast adrift in every sense that matters.
Tun Hussein Onn Sunway Library Call Number: PS3515.E37 S95 2006
5) Lord of the Flies by William Golding
“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?”
A plane crashes onto a desert island. A group of schoolboys, left stranded alone, at first celebrate their freedom. Civilisation can be moulded into anything they wish, but the one that they forge becomes one of terror, fear and savagery.
Golding’s novel is a gut-dropping look into the loss of innocence and the question of whether there is inherent darkness within each and everyone of us. As the world just out of sight devolves into the darkest hells of war, so does the reality that the characters face when the thin veneer of civilisation fractures under the lure of savagery.
Tun Hussein Onn Sunway Library Call Number: PR6013.O35 L86 2011
6) The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died. Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending.”
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer. Khalil had been unarmed. Through the chaos that follows, through the protests and the attempts at silence, it is a story of the struggle for justice against a corrupt, broken system that grips and hurts and breaks, all for the crime of being a different race.
Tun Hussein Onn Sunway Library Call Number: PS3620.H62463 H36 2017
7) 1984 by George Orwell
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
In a futuristic purgatory where everything is in absolute control, Winston Smith attempts to rebel against the repressive government Party that rules his country and his life. His attempts to find individuality, which is unfortunately dangerous in the world he resides in.
Orwell paints a nightmarish scenario of the manifestation of mass surveillance, totalitarianism and propaganda. In censorship and brainwashing, in the grip of a control far beyond and terrifying, tortured until pain and hatred turns into love and obedience, it is a nauseating look at total, unyielding state control.
Tun Hussein Onn Sunway Library Call Number: PE1121 LEVEL 4 N71 2003
8) Maus by Art Spiegelman
“Yes, life always takes the side of life, and somehow the victims are blamed! But it wasn’t the best people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was random!”
On the left is a panel from Maus. It is a biographical work that details the life of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor from the Holocaust. The events are addressed through the characters taking the form of mice and cats, and is a bleak look into the very heart of the Holocaust. It is his story of survival, as well as the complex relationship he had with his aging father. His work tends to be challenged or censored due to the graphic and disturbing depictions of the Holocaust as it truly transpired; but there cannot be pretence that this never happened, nor the avoidance of such topics.
Tun Hussein Onn Sunway Library Call Number: PN6727.S6 M452 1997
Written by: Trishta