Book censorship is the act of some authority taking measures to suppress ideas and information within a book. Censorship is "the regulation of free speech and other forms of entrenched authority". Censors typically identify as either a concerned parent, community members who react to a text without reading, or local or national organizations. Marshall University Library defines a banned book as one that is "removed from a library, classroom etc." and a challenged book as one that is "requested to be removed from a library, classroom etc." Books can be censored by burning, shelf removal, school censorship, and banning books. Books are most often censored for age appropriateness, offensive language, sexual content, amongst other reasons. Similarly, religions may issue lists of banned books, such as the historical example of the Roman Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which do not always carry legal force. Censorship can be enacted at the national or subnational level as well, and can carry legal penalties. Books may also be challenged at a local community level, although successful bans do not extend outside that area.
"Almost every country places some restrictions on what may be published, although the emphasis and the degree of control differ from country to country and at different periods." There are a variety of reasons for which books may be censored. Materials are often suppressed due to the perceived notion of obscenity. This obscenity can apply to materials that are about sexuality, race, drugs, or social standing. The censorship of literature on the charge of obscenity appears to have begun in the early 19th century. The rise of the middle class, who had evangelical backgrounds, brought about this concern with obscenity.
Governments have also sought to ban certain books which they perceive to contain material that could threaten, embarrass, or criticize them.
Throughout history, societies practiced various forms of censorship in the belief that the community, as represented by the government, was responsible for molding the individual.
Other leaders outside the government have banned books, including religious authorities. Church leaders who prohibit members of their faith from reading the banned books may want to shelter them from perceived obscene, immoral, or profane ideas or situations or from ideas that may challenge the teaching of that religion.
But even religious materials have been subject to censorship. For example, various scriptures have been banned (and sometimes burned at several points in history). The Bible, and other religious scriptures have all been subjected to censorship and have been banned by various governments. Similarly, books based on the scriptures have also been banned, such as Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which was banned in the Russian Empire for being anti-establishment.
Banning of a book often has the effect of making people seek the book. The action of banning the book creates an interest in the book which has the opposite effect of making the work more popular.
Book burning is the practice of destroying, often ceremonially, books or other written material. It is usually carried out in public and is generally motivated by moral, religious, or political objections to the material, with a desire to censor it. Book burning is one of the original types of censorship dating back to 213 BCE. Book burning has historically been performed in times of conflict, for example Nazi book burnings, US Library of Congress, Arian books, Jewish Manuscripts in 1244, and the burning of Christian texts, just to name a few. In the United States, book burning is another right that is protected by the first amendment as a freedom of expression.
In the United States, school organizations that find contents of a book to be offensive or unfit for a given age group will often have the book removed from the class curriculum. This type of censorship usually arises from parental influence in schools. Parents who do not feel comfortable with a child's required reading will make efforts to have the book removed from a class, and replaced by another title.
According to the Marshall University Library, a banned book in the United States is one that has been "removed from a library, classroom, etc". In many situations, parents or concerned parties will ban or propose a ban based on the book's contents. The American Library Association publishes a list of the top "Banned and Challenged Books" for any given year. The American Library Association also organizes a "Banned Books Week", which is “an annual event celebrating the freedom to read." The goal of the project is to bring awareness to banned books and promote the freedom to learn.
According to the American Library Association, "the school library is a unique and essential part of the learning community, and when led by a qualified school librarian, prepares all learners for college, career, and life." In certain scenarios, concerned third parties often voice their concerns over certain titles in libraries that they deem to be unfit for students. In 1982, the Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 versus Pico was taken to the United States Supreme Court. In the case, students and parents challenged the board's removal of certain titles from the school library. The books included texts which the board considered to be "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy." The Supreme Court Justices stated removal of books from libraries was only permissible if the books were considered educationally unsuitable.
Public libraries are considered to be open to the public within a town or community. Similar to school libraries, removal of books from public library shelves is often the subject of heavy debate. "Public schools and public libraries...have been the setting for legal battles about student access to books, removal or retention of 'offensive' material, regulation of patron behavior, and limitations on public access to the internet." In 2014, Singapore removed And Tango Makes Three, as well as The White Swan Express from public libraries based on the book's gay and lesbian couples. The National Library Board takes a "a pro-family and cautious approach in identifying titles for our young visitors", and later pulped the books.
Book censorship can arise for any number of reasons. Concerned parties may find certain texts to be unfit for a learning environment. Some of the most common reasons for censorship include:
- Offensive Language - Novels that contain profane or offensive language are one reason which book could be censored. Individuals who do not find the language of the book to be appropriate will seek the book to be banned or censored. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is a book that has been censored and considered controversial for over 100 years. The book has been argued whether it is considered racist, or anti-racist, due to the use of the word "nigger" in the text. In 1982, a school administrator of Virginia called the novel the "most grotesque example of racism I've ever seen in my life".
- Age Appropriateness - One of the most common reasons for censorship is when a book's content does not align with the intended age of the audience. This reason is one of the more popular reasons because it is generally applied to any title a censor deems worthy of censorship. Many parents and concerned parties will challenge titles or hold back books from children, in hopes a certain book does not negatively impact an impressionable child. Common examples of this include Looking for Alaska, I am Jazz, and Habibi, which all were listed on the American Library associations top 10 challenged books for 2015 for age appropriateness.
- Sexual Content - Many parents will find any sort of sexual interaction within literature to be a cause for action. Concerned parties worry that reading books about sex will cause the reader to "think about, express interest in, or have sex." In 2013, the American Library Association ranked 50 Shades of Grey as number 4 on the annual study of challenged books for its graphic sexual content. In addition, The Country Girls, by Edna O'Brien, was banned by Ireland's censorship board in 1960 for the book's explicit sexual content.
- Religious Affiliation - A title can be censored due to a religious affiliation, if a concerned party views the book as religiously charged, or a certain religious group deems the book to be anti-religious. On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, has been surpassed and challenged since publication in 1859 due to the discussion about the theory of evolution. The Bible has also been censored all over the world, including Spanish versions of The Bible being banned in Spain from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.
- Witchcraft - When books use magic, or witchcraft. Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling, was the #1 most challenged book series in 2001 and 2002, for the use of witchcraft, and for being satanic, according to the American Library Association.
- Violence or Negativity - These books are censored due to violent and graphic scenes, or are considered to be damaging for readers. In Australia, How to Make Disposable Silencers, by Desert and Eliezer Flores was banned after being considered to "promote, incite, or instruct in matters of crime or violence". In France, Suicide mode d'emploi, by Claude Guillon, which reviews recipes for suicide, was banned and resulted in a law to be made which prohibits provocation to commit suicide and propaganda or advertisement of products, objects, or methods for committing suicide.
- Racial Issues - Novels which promote stories of racism or encouraging racism towards a group of people. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, have been censored for many years due to the use of racial slurs within the texts.
- Political Influence - Occurs when a book is considered by a censor to be politically motivated, or a censor has a certain political motivation for censorship. In 1958, the Irish Censorship of Publications Board banned the book Borstal Boy because of critiques of Irish republicanism, social attitudes and the Catholic Church. Areopagitica, by John Milton, was banned in the Kingdom of England for the philosophical defenses of the right to freedom of speech and expression.
- LGBTQ+ Content - Censorship happens when authors will include LGBTQ+ characters and themes in their novels. Drama, by Raina Telgemeier, has been one of the top 10 most challenged books for the last three years straight for the use of LGBTQ+ characters, according to the American Library Association. The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall, was banned in the UK from 1928 to 1949 for the lesbian themes the book presents.
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