Does a book about censorship sound interesting to you? Do you think it would be a dull, sententious, pedagogical work? Would you be curious?
I was curious, but had few expectations. Maybe I did expect certain books to discussed, but I had no idea whether or not the discussions would be interesting or tedious. As a life-time lover of books and reading, however, censorship and book banning have always been on the periphery of my life. And I know from the frequent discussions about banned books, that the topic is of interest to most of you.
Censored presents an eminently readable, well-documented, and well-researched examination of the role of censorship in literature.
The introduction asks, "What harm can words do? This reasoning can lead to the conclusion that speech should never be restricted because it cannot actually hurt anyone, and that those who believe they have been harmed by speech simply need to grow a thicker skin."
It then proceeds to acknowledge that speech can have "tangible effects, though these are rarely easy to predict or control. The same power that exposes a corrupt government can incite mob violence against a vulnerable person."
And furthermore, "Because speech is powerful, our freedom to speak must be defended from unjust restrictions. Because speech is powerful, however, that freedom cannot be absolute. Like action, speech will always raise ethical and legal questions." That pretty much sums things up: freedom of speech must be defended and that freedom cannot be absolute. Yelling fire in a theater doesn't qualify.
And, as we often discover, censoring a work can call more attention to it. The very act of banning or restricting access tends to make people curious and can backfire on the very concerns trying to suppress it.
The introduction makes clear that the subject of censorship is a complicated one, and that even the threat of censorship may cause an author to self-censor (a chilling effect that may not even be visible) and this may mean that some books are never written at all.
An interesting example is given in Frances Burney, whose plays were stifled by her father and her mentor, who didn't consider writing for the stage appropriate for a woman. Burney gets an entire chapter later.
Chapter 1 discusses the English Bibles. The first translations to English were attempts to make the Bible available to the common people, but doing so could and did lead to charges of heresy and burning at the stake. From Wycliff to Tyndale, this chapter is engrossing and the battle took many lives. Even when an English translation was accepted, "people of the 'lower sort' were forbidden to read the Bible altogether."
Each chapter discusses a particular book and the efforts made to suppress it, and each chapter contains fascinating and often alarming information about the how and why of the process.
Chapter 2 discusses Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill) by John Cleland. It begins by relating that--while state prohibitions against topics considered heretical, blasphemous, or seditious--are problems because they "directly challenge religious or secular authority." But what about writing about sex? Yep. Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure first provoked the obscenity law in 1748 and continued to be a problem for more than 200 years. This chapter is intriguing not only for the challenges to Memoirs, but for the changes in how obscene material has been defined and how the law has been administered in regard to many other books.
Chapter after Chapter proved interesting and informative. I've read many, but not all of the books discussed, and reading about both the books I've read and the ones I'm only familiar with because of their having been banned at one time or another proved immensely educational.
Chapter 21 about Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Riveting. I thought I was familiar with that case, but learned I only glimpsed the fringes of the impact.
The Afterword begins with a quote from Hilary Mantel: "Oppressors don't just want to do their deed, they want to take a bow: they want their victims to sing their praises." She adds that the struggles continue, repeating themselves.
The Afterword also reiterates that thought and provides information concerning current efforts at censorship and restriction.
I can recommend Censored: A Literary History of Subversion & Control without reservation. Informative, illuminating, significant, and fascinating.
NetGalley/McGill-Queen's University Press
Nonfiction. 2017. Print length: 432 pages