Freedom to Read

This week (September 26 to October 2) is Banned Books Week, a celebration of our freedom to read. And, coincidentally, Distributed Proofreaders is 21 years old today – all grown up, as it were, with a world of books, banned or not, to contribute to Project Gutenberg, making them freely available to anyone with an electronic device.

Both Distributed Proofreaders (DP) and Project Gutenberg (PG) follow the principles of the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read statement – “free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture.” As long as the book is in the public domain in the United States, there is no restriction on content at DP or PG. Below are some highlights of the once-banned books that DP and PG volunteers have preserved as e-books.

Book-banning has been around for centuries. It has been said that the ancient Roman poet Ovid was exiled for his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), published in 1 BCE (but some theorize that the exile was politically motivated). Henry Fielding‘s English translation of it was published under the title The Lover’s Assistant, or New Art of Love in 1759. Fielding’s own wildly popular novel, Tom Jones, was belatedly banned as “indecent” in 1913 by one library in England, because “whatever might have been the habits 150 years ago, it was not a suitable book … to have access to in a free public library.”

Not surprisingly, books of prurient interest are frequently the target of the guardians of morality. The very bawdy L’Escoles des Filles (The School for Girls) of 1655, said to be the earliest of the French “libertine” novels, got its Parisian publisher, Michel Millot, into hot water. He had to flee the city, and the public prosecutors burned every copy they could get their hands on. But they must have missed some. In February 1668, Samuel Pepys got hold of a reprint, in a “plain binding,” from his London bookseller. Claiming in his Diary to have read it strictly “for information sake,” he found it “mighty lewd,” apparently enjoyed it, and then “burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame.” (And, speaking of lewdness, the part of this passage involving his enjoyment was excised from the 19th-Century edition that was used to prepare the e-book version of his 1668 diary entries at PG.)

The Roman Catholic Church officially banned thousands of books through its Index Librorum Prohibitum (Index of Prohibited Books), begun in the 16th Century. Protestant theology works were naturally on the list as being heresy, but the Church also went after scientific books. For example, it considered heliocentrism – the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around – particularly heretical. And so, among many other astronomical works, the Church banned all of Galileo‘s books, including The Sidereal Messenger, in which he reported his observations supporting heliocentrism through the newly-invented telescope. In 1633, Galileo was found guilty of heresy and forced to formally reject heliocentrism (though he is said to have muttered afterward, “Eppur si muove” – “Still, it moves”). Despite mounting scientific evidence, the Church did not remove books on heliocentrism from the Index until 1835. The Church abolished the Index altogether in 1966 and officially exonerated Galileo in 1992.

The combination of politics and religion was also a recipe for censorship. America’s first banned book, Thomas Morton’s The New English Canaan, published in 1637, was an exposé of the misdoings of the Puritan settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It led to Morton’s arrest and exile to what was then the wilderness of Maine. You can read all about it in this blog post.

What we now consider classics did not escape censorship when they were published – and some are still targeted today. Mark Twain‘s beloved Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned by libraries in Massachusetts and New York shortly after its publication in 1885, on the grounds that it was “rough, coarse and inelegant.” Today, it continues to be challenged for its use of racial stereotypes and epithets, even though the story of the friendship between Huck Finn, a runaway white boy, and Jim, a runaway black slave, is clearly anti-racist in intent.

James Joyce‘s famed stream-of-consciousness novel, Ulysses, was banned – and burned – in both England and the United States after its publication in Paris in 1922. One Irish critic called it “[t]he most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature,” citing its “flood of unimaginable thoughts, images, and pornographic words” and its “unclean lunacies … larded with appalling and revolting blasphemies.” That particular criticism found its way into the U.S. government’s argument in the second trial of the book for obscenity in 1933 – and that time, the government lost, finally allowing Ulysses to be legally published in the United States.

Another Irish writer, Frank Harris, also had a notorious work banned on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time. Harris was a knockabout journalist who hobnobbed with many celebrities of the turn of the last century (see his somewhat embellished biography of his friend Oscar Wilde). Harris’s steamy autobiography, My Life and Loves, was privately published in Paris in installments from 1922 to 1927, but it was not legally published in its entirety until 1963. You can see why if you take a peek at Volume 1: His accounts of his amorous adventures are quite graphic and are illustrated by photos and drawings of nude women.

Even poetry has had its censors. Walt Whitman‘s 1855 Leaves of Grass was a bit too erotic – specifically homoerotic – for 19th-Century librarians’ tastes. They refused to stock it, and Whitman even lost his government job thanks to the long-running controversy it engendered. Nearly thirty years after its first publication, the Boston district attorney insisted that some of the “obscene” poems (like “Song of Myself”) be excised from a new edition. Whitman refused, found another publisher, and saw the unexpurgated edition sell out in one day.

In celebrating Banned Books Week, let’s remember the warning of the great 19th-Century German poet Heinrich Heine, whose own books were banned in his lifetime and later burned by the Nazis:

Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
That was just a prelude, where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people.

– from Almansor

Exercise your freedom to read.

This post was contributed by Linda Cantoni, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

2 Responses to Freedom to Read

  1. Jeroen Hellingman says:

    Even today, the book burners and bowdlerizers are among us. Huckleberry Finn is still under fire, now for its use of the n-word (I counted 214 instances in one of PG’s editions), while a recent Dutch translation of Dante expurgated his mention of Mohamed, who in Canto XXVIII is ripped apart for sowing discord. (https://rmx.news/article/mohammed-removed-from-new-dutch-translation-of-dante-s-inferno/). The scene appears in full glory in PG’s English translation, and I will now need to track down an out-of-copyright Dutch version to remedy this travesty in my native language.

    An even bigger threat comes from the current political polarization. On one side historical thinkers, even such giants as Kant and Hume, are to be eliminated for the sole sin of being white males, whereas on the other side, scientists as Darwin and his theory are under constant virulent irrational attacks, for being in conflict with fundamentalist dogmas. It is good to have a resource that tries to withstand such destructive attempts of censorship and falsification of history.

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