It is no coincidence that some of the most read and celebrated titles of our time were once – or currently are in some areas – banned books. The Library of Congress presented an exhibition in 2012 entitled: ‘Books that shaped America’, intending to spark a dialogue on the titles of most influence in society. Among those titles are many books that have at one time or another, in one place or another, been considered taboo and unfit for public consumption. The Scarlet Letter sparked outrage following its 1850 publication for sexual and pornographic obscenity, just as treasured and now widely taught British classics Ulysses and The Canterbury Tales have faced condemnation and censorship along similar lines.
Boundary pushing, controversial titles have been attracting mass readership for hundreds of years. What is becoming apparent in the (supposedly) more forward-thinking, liberal society of today, however, is the prevalence of the overexertion of governments and education boards in their censorship of literature. It doesn’t seem to take much to qualify as boundary pushing and controversial. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Green Eggs and Ham have all been banned in recent years for what appear to be tenuous reasons. Alice was said by the Chinese Government to be dangerous to the minds of children in its likening of animals to humans, Rowling’s bestseller has been struck down in areas of America for promoting dark arts andwitchcraft, and Dr Seuss’ nonsense favourite has been restricted publication due to its apparent portrayal of early Marxism.
There was a time in which society was far more morally sensitive to oversexed novels, as with The Scarlet Letter, or contexts in which potential for damaging influence of publications such as Mein Kampf, call for and even justify censorship. The banning of works like Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, by contrast, is increasingly petty. Author Salman Rushdie has condemned the labelling of books as ‘taboo’ in an article for The New Yorker: “At its most effective the censor’s lie actually succeeds in replacing the artist’s truth… The assumption of guilt replaces the assumption of innocence.” It is fair to say that Rowling is not looking to insight an uprising of young witches, and no primary school child is opening Green Eggs and Ham and walking away with an opinion on Marxism.
Sometimes literature need not be weighed down by the baggage of its context and the subjective perceptions of a few should not restrict the many. Each of these children’s books are written to inspire imagination, they champion innocence and explore the fantastical. To tell a child immersed in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that they are doing something wrong, to attach the ‘taboo’ label onto something being enjoyed from an uncorrupted perspective – at that point censorship has overreached. Is Rowling encouraging the children of America to practice black magic, or has she just written an innocent piece of fiction our generation grew up with and loved? Can a story not simply be a story?