From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Censorship in America

Although today we tend to think of censorship as a modern problem, it isn't new at all. You might be surprised to discover just how far back the tradition extends. In ancient times, banning books meant burning books. Books were hand-written, with few copies and burning was a very effective method of eradicating all traces of an idea. However, the advent of the printing press in 1450 made it so much easier to produce a book that it has become virtually impossible to destroy any book completely. (In a side note, the first list of censored books was published in 1559 by the Roman Catholic Church - a list that continued to be printed until 1966.)

  In 1650, 125 years before Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper and laid out the Bill of Rights, The Meritorious Price of our Redemption, Justification, & c. by William Pynchon became the first book banned in America. The book opposed the Purtanical teachings of the day and was immediately banned. It was ordered burned and a day of "fasting and humiliation" followed in order for the citizens to contemplate the role Satan had played in these wild ideas. Only 4 copies of the book survived.

  Although this was the first, it wouldn't be the last time a book was banned in America. Modern censorship was pioneered by Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1872. He was responsible for the "Comstock Law," passed a year later by Congress, which banned the mailing of works deemed to be obscene. Over the next 40 years, it is estimated that over 120 tons of printed works were confiscated. The "obscene" works that were so dangerous? Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights and works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few.

It took the specter of Nazi book-burning to show Congress how wrong the law was. It was repealed in 1933.

Of course, we know that the possibility of censorship continues to exist, even today. And although we celebrate our right to read every year with Banned Books Week, the fight continues. When Judith Krug founded BBW, she wasn't only fighting against the public challenges to ban books. Because a public challenge draws attention, and with enough attention a book may not be banned. Ms. Krug was also fighting against the silent banning of books. You know, the teacher, librarian or parent who will quietly remove a book for someone else's "protection." She estimated that for every one publicly challenged book (and there have been over 4,000 challenges in the last decade alone), there are four to five that go unreported. That's four or five books that disappear from the shelf and no one notices.

Although today burning a book is mostly symbolic - or a way to garner free publicity -when the public doesn't have free access to any book, any idea, it's like that book has been burned. And maybe we didn't start the fire, but when we don't stand up and demand the book's return - demand that censorship stop - it's like we didn't put it out.

We should all celebrate our right to read - anything we want, any time we want. And we should exercise these rights often!


  1. Michele, very thorough and informative post. Thank you for taking the time to put this together.


Stat Counter