Banned books week

Some of the titles in our collection are or were banned or challenged in a variety of countries by governments, religious authorities, or other interest groups. Dictatorships come to mind, of course, but countries thought more liberal are not exempt from similar practices. Here is a short look at our collections for banned books week (September 18-24).

Among non-fiction titles, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was distributed as samizdat (clandestine publications) in the USSR. Some titles in our collection also recollect the Western efforts to distribute banned literature on the other side of the iron curtain. More recently, I am Malala was banned in Pakistan. 

Surprisingly, fiction is more frequently banned than non-fiction. While there is little of it in our book collection, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is here after being banned for blasphemy in many Muslim countries. Reactions to its publication had a huge impact worldwide in 1998 and later, recently culminating in the stabbing of the author.

Graphic novel titles and adaptations are not exempt. American conservatives are currently on a campaign against LGBT content in libraries, the most visible example being Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe. This was the most banned and challenged title in American libraries in 2020 and 2021 for its “sexually explicit” content – a trend which will probably continue this year.

Maus, the graphic portrayal of a Holocaust survivor, is also challenged in American schools for its alleged violent nature, as is the graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary.

Our collection of films contains many more challenged titles, generally inspired by reality. Luc Besson’s The Lady, Scorcese’s Kundun, and Xiu Xiu are among those banned in China. The Sorrow and the Pity, The Battle of Algiers, and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory were banned in France for some time for being critical of the army, collaboration, and colonial France.

Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis were banned in Lebanon, the second without any explanation.

Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)

Sexual content is often a major catalyst in the banning of published works. Forty years after its release, The Tin Drum faces a lot of criticism in the United States for depicting sex scenes between minors. Pasolini’s Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom is of course still shocking for its depiction of degrading treatments and obscenity.

On a more humourous side, Seth Rogen’s Interview faced strong reactions and threats from North Korea, leading to its editing to tone it down, and a digital rather than theatrical release.

The Interview (Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, 2014)

It is reminiscent of Chaplin’s Great Dictator being banned under the Nazi regime for deriding Hitler. The Death of Stalin, based on a French graphic novel, is also banned in Russia.

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

But bans also happen in defence of openness itself, as referenced in Popper’s paradox of tolerance. Nazi titles such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, and Jud Süss are now banned in some countries for their hateful ideology. As a research library interested in politics and contemporary history, we still hold copies of these. Their role in our collection is to serve as primary sources when studying nazi ideology rather than an endorsement of their content.

Finally, even books that are not entirely banned see some of their content censored. Some examples include the memoirs of former intelligence or military officers, such as Operation Dark Heart or the CIA and the Cult of Intelligence.

All of these and more titles about book banning and censorship are available on display for a couple of weeks at the entrance of the Library and in our catalogue.

Relevant call number: 342.7 Human rights (including Freedom of expression).


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