I WAS ABOUT 10 YEARS OLD, and I had discovered my Dad’s tattered old copy of Stephen King’s truly terrifying vampire book, ‘Salem’s Lot. I was hooked — I wanted more spooky stuff. So I went into the library and found Carrie, and walked up to the counter.
“You can’t check this out,” the librarian said.
“Why?” I asked.
“You’re too young.”
My mom took it. “I’ll check it out for you.”
“I can’t really do that,” the librarian said, “I know it’s for him.”
Look — it may have been a good idea to not give a 10-year-old a book about periods and mass slayings, but I remember seething as we drove home that day. “I’m definitely reading it now,” I thought.
Governments ban books for any number of reasons: sexual content, religious blasphemy, racism, and violence, to name a few. There are such things as books that some people should not read (the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion comes to mind). But the act of banning a book is always a terrible idea. It not only crushes free speech, but it elevates the book and it’s author to martyr status, which often is the exact opposite of what the banner wanted.
This week is Banned Books Week, so in honor of the written word, here are 4 books from around the world that you should totally read.
Marjane Satrapi was born in Iran, and grew up during the Iranian Revolution. In her classic autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, she tells the story of growing up as a feminist punk in deeply conservative country.
So you’re thinking — this would have been banned in Iran, right? Well, it was never actually published there, so in a way, yes — but it was banned in Chicago. Administrators pulled it from public school libraries citing “graphic language and content inappropriate for children.”
The backlash was swift, and Satrapi publicly objected to the censorship. School officials eventually pulled back, allowing some copies in the schools.
Erich Maria Remarque’s famous anti-war book about the grinding, brutal fighting in the WWI trenches was a bit too realistic for Hitler. The Nazis banned the book for allegedly denigrating the German war effort and for being a “degenerate book.” Fascists tossed All Quiet on the Western Front into some of their earliest book bonfires.
Remarque, himself a veteran of WWI, had to flee Germany, but his sister stayed behind. In 1943, the Nazis arrested her and said, “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach — you, however, will not escape us.” They beheaded her for “undermining morale.”
Remarque lived to the age of 72. His book on the destructiveness and senselessness of war lives on still.
Rushdie’s 1988 book is perhaps the most famous banned book of the 20th century. Nominally, it was banned in many Muslim countries because it was blasphemous towards Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran even put a fatwa out calling for Rushdie’s murder. But the Ayatollah was probably more upset about a chapter that mocked him specifically.
Rushdie had to spend years in hiding as a result of the fatwa. Today, the story around The Satanic Verses is now better known than the story within the pages of the book itself.
The book itself is a pretty incredible, bizarre, magical realist book in the vein as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s worth reading for its strange, almost indescribable story alone. But even if you don’t love it, at least you’re pissing off the Ayatollah’s ghost.
The Soviets banned a lot of books. One of the most illustrative examples, though, was Boris Pasternak’s classic Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak’s book is a sprawling, epic novel taking place in early 20th century Russia. The central story is a love story, but the book is also critical of the Russian Revolution.
Pasternak had friends smuggle the book out of Russia in order to publish it. The next year, Pasternak was offered the Nobel Prize for Literature, but turned it down, worried about reprisals from the Communist Party. They threatened to both not allow him to return home if he went to collect the prize, and to send his mistress to the gulag. The book wasn’t published until 1988 in the USSR.