Why in a democracy do we still ban books?

Joseph Coulson, President, Great Books Foundation

Twelve months ago I wrote a brief reflection for Banned Books Week. A year has gone by and titles old and new continue to be banned in communities across the country. Many people in the digital domain, using a variation on Nietzsche, have declared the book dead, but books continue to live and, it appears, threaten the general population—enough so that a wide range of social and political groups feel the need to ban paper and print in an effort to save our culture. The irony, of course, is that almost every great book, almost every book of important cultural significance, has at some time or another been banned. Given this reality, I propose that on the covers of books that have been banned publishers should affix gold stickers honoring the book’s struggle—a badge of honor for surviving in a hostile world.

People ban books out of fear or, to be more precise, misunderstanding. Great books are misunderstood. Great books by great writers are banned because in some way they threaten someone’s status quo, and part of the misunderstanding is the conviction that threatening the status quo is a bad thing. Indeed, when a book begins to emerge as original and essential, somewhere in some dark corner of the republic a group of citizens is ready to toss it on the fire. It is difficult to love books and see them routinely subjected to abuse, but then I think of Emerson and find a modicum of solace. In his essay “Self- Reliance,” speaking about “foolish consistency,” Emerson asks an essential question and provides an answer: “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

I am buoyed by Emerson until the sinking moment when I remember that even he fell short of his wisdom. Consistent in his own inconsistency, he rejected and reportedly threw into his fireplace a later edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The only thing I can say in response to Emerson’s action is a variation on his own famous phrase. To be great is to be banned.

Perhaps we can undo some of the damage inflicted upon us when books are banned by giving our favorite persecuted books the credit they deserve. And the best way to do this—beyond a small badge of honor—is to discuss with other readers what the books have to say and seek to understand the challenges they offer.


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