It’s Banned Books Week! Happy Banned Books Week! Of course, we know this is a mostly American event promoted by the American Library Association, but censorship has never been confined to any one era or country, so we decided it was worth bringing up.
Most articles observing Banned Books Week focus on books that were once banned or those that have been challenged as inappropriate for American schools and libraries. It’s easy to look back with amusement at books that were banned fifty or a hundred years ago that are now considered classics. Like that time France, England, New Zealand, Argentina, and South Africa banned Lolita. But there are countless books currently banned by governments or schools around the world, and countless writers in danger because of their writing — and some of those cases are just as strange and surprising.
So, in honor of Banned Books Week, here are just ten from around the world.
1. The United States: Twilight
What? Americans most often campaign to have certain young adult novels removed from public and school libraries. Classics that deal with mature themes like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird come under fire all the time. But this year the insanely popular Twilight novels made the most banned list. And no, it’s not because the writing is so bad that reading the Twilight series will make you dumber. Parents and other groups complain that the books are too sexually explicit and contain offensive language. Well, obviously. That’s why teenagers love them!
2. Australia: American Psycho
You won’t find American Psycho on the shelf in Australian bookstores. If you want to buy a copy of the extremely graphic 1991 serial killer novel, you must be over age 18 and you have to ask for it at the counter. Then it comes in a plastic wrapper. As it turns out, the book’s American author Brett Easton Ellis thinks that’s just fine.
3. India: The Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel is probably the most spectacularly banned book of all time. There were riots all over the world when it was published because it was considered blasphemous against Islam. Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (in this case a million dollar bounty on Rushdie’s head) and the author spent a decade in hiding. And that’s the short version of all the death threats and backlash the book inspired. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the controversial novel and its author are both still banned in Rushdie’s native India (and a lot of other countries). But, come on, the ’80s were a long time ago, and The Satanic Verses is an award winning novel. On the other hand, the book’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991, so maybe people are still mad.
4. Denmark: Jaeger
This book, written by former Danish special forces soldier Thomas Rathsack, was challenged by the military in Denmark last year because it allegedly poses a national security risk. The book’s title translates to Hunter: At War With the Elite and it reveals the details of operations he took part in in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rathsack does not reveal full names or exact locations in the book, but he does describe certain actions, such as dressing in Afghan clothes and carrying a concealed weapon, that violate the Geneva Conventions. Rathsack faces criminal charges for the secrets he has revealed but the courts rejected the call to ban the book — but only because it had already been published. He is also on Facebook. BTW, there is a very similar case in the US dealing with the spy memoir Operation Dark Heart.
5. Japan: Toppamono Sorekara
Manga author Manabu Miyzaki is suing the police in Fukuoka prefecture for pressuring shop owners to take copies of his autobiographical manga Toppamono Sorekara off the shelves. Miyazaki is the son of a gangster family and his graphic novel deals with the lives of Yakuza. The police acted under an ordinance meant to curtail the influence of the Yakuza members. Gang violence has surged in parts of Japan recently, but it’s pretty unlikely that a comic book — even one that is very true to life — had anything to do with that.
6. Lebanon: The Da Vinci Code
This ridiculously popular novel has a plot that centers on the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a kid together — and not in that immaculate conception way either. Perhaps understandably, Catholic leaders especially find this book upsetting and religious groups around the world have protested the book, its sequel, and the movies based on them. In Lebanon, where 35% of citizens are Christian, this outcry got the book banned. Actually Lebanon is pretty active on the book-banning front: Anne Frank is also persona non grata.
7. Burma: Freedom From Fear
Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for nonviolent resistance to military rule in her native Burma. She has also lived under house arrest in her home country for most of the last twenty years for the same reason. Her movements are restricted, but her books of political writings – Freedom from Fear, Letters from Burma, and others — travel freely around the world and have helped to build international support for her cause. But you can’t get them in Burma, making them effectively banned, just as their author is banned from running for office. When she and her party, the National League for Democracy, won the last election, the military junta in power just threw out the results and said she couldn’t run again.
8. Russia: Dianetics
Dianetics, late American science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard’s spiritual self-help book, is not welcome in Russia. Under a law banning “extremist” writings, reading the book, which puts forth the beliefs of The Church of Scientology, is now a punishable offense. According to the Prosecutor General’s office Dianetics undermines “the traditional spiritual values of the citizens of the Russian federation.” The Church of Scientology isn’t happy about it, of course. But does the ban apply to everyone? Like, can Tom Cruise bring his own copy when he visits?
9. Thailand: The King Never Smiles
This independent biography of Thailand’s constitutional monarch Bumibol Adulyadej, written by freelance journalist Paul M. Handley, portrays the king as anti-democratic, so it got the boot. Wikipedia suggests that photocopied versions have surfaced in Bangkok. But this has not been confirmed.
10. Egypt: Tales From the Thousand and One Nights
Okay, so this one isn’t banned yet. In fact, everything was okay until a new edition of the Medieval Arabic classic came out, and now a group of Islamist lawyers in Egypt are seeking to get the book banned, they say, because its depictions of sexuality were “calls to sin.” The General Organization of Culture Palaces, a state-run organization that published the edition, publicly defended the right of Egyptians to read it and several Egyptian writers spoke out against the censorship campaign, so, actually, this one is probably safe.
The point here is that this kind of thing goes on all year, all over world. So what do you think of this list? And how will you celebrate Banned Books Week? I might celebrate by picking up a copy of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. Those lawyers made it sound pretty good.