We might think that the book's greatest enemy is digitization, which makes the physical object less desirable. Or the myriad of video content present on the Web and viewable by our phones as well as our computers. Yet, no, the threat lies more in the inability to accept ideas or concepts that do not correspond to those of any authority.
More than ever the book is threatened by censorship and North America seems to have regained the "taste" of autodafés.
Hide that book from me
In September 2021, the general public learned that Canadian schools would be removing nearly 5,000 books and about 30 had already been burned by the institutions. For what reason? These books would not respect Canada's First Nations, using words like "Indian" or "savage". Instilling respect and acknowledging the wrongs done to Aboriginal people is not in itself wrong, but burning books will not erase the crimes of the past. Especially since one of the main initiators of the movement has no roots with any indigenous people, despite her claims. A unilateral decision that did not take into account the fact that there were authors denouncing the realities of residential schools, for example, and others... from First Nations and daring to reappropriate the pejorative vocabulary used by the colonizers.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum among Americans, it is the books dealing with progressive themes that are censored. Encouraged by Republican Party politicians, parents are demanding the indexing of books that have the audacity to talk about people from the LGBTQ+ community, dealing with racism in the United States, and even comic books like Maus bearing witness to the Holocaust. This growing campaign, especially in conservative states, is a logical consequence of the policies left by former president Donald Trump. The latter had in fact signed an executive order banning the teaching of "divisive concepts" in September 2020. His successor rescinded it in March 2021, but the damage was done. Republican lawmakers have embarked on a slingshot seeking to punish school or public libraries that fail to comply with the bans. In Oklahoma, the law would award $10,000 to plaintiffs for every day a book remained on the shelves. The naysayers would lose their right to practice altogether.
A misunderstanding of literature
The current problem often stems from the sensibilities of readers (or even non-readers). Thus, on the one hand, progressive movements have the impression that the use of discriminatory terms and principles means that the author endorses them. This omits one of the functions of this art: to put us in the shoes of people from different times and worlds. Inevitably, some of them will have opposite values. So the solution is through contextualization of the work with modern prefaces showing the differences in thinking since the writing rather than through sensitivity committees that will blacklist as soon as they sense a controversy coming.
For example, the publishers of the Dr. Seuss books preferred to stop publishing some, outdated in their view of certain parts of society. Now, many American booksellers were shocked by this decision in relation to classics of children's literature. So instead, they offer contextualizations and during reading sessions to children, they are called upon to express themselves on offensive cartoons. This proves far more constructive than censorship alone.
Inversely, conservative bans will do nothing to protect young people. They can see this information elsewhere, including the Internet. It will at best only regress the discussion that has begun on difficult topics. This avoidance of the "divide" ends up creating an even bigger one as it sends the message that these realities should disappear. That the population would be better off without works featuring individuals of different sexuality, feminist ideas like the Scarlet Handmaiden or recalling the discrimination experienced by African Americans, among others. In short, it seems that everyone forgets that literature, like all art forms, is meant to mirror our society. Hence the importance of bringing discomforts to light in writing and addressing them head-on.
So, little by little, a fightback is forming particularly against the Republican censorship at work. E-book platforms like Scribd have made these titles freely available for a time. "Banned books" book clubs are forming (showing the absurdity of trying to ban them) and books are being distributed free of charge. The banning of Maus in some states caused U.S. sales to jump more than 700% in early 2022.
For book-lovers' associations, however, the pressure will have to mount against these attempts at censorship. Parents need to become more involved politically and with schools, neighborhood bookstores, and others to stress the importance of these books. The media can serve as a conduit for relaying the concerns of booksellers and librarians worried about what's next. Instead of insisting, as they sometimes did, on "Banned Books Week," they should call it "Intellectual Freedom and Expression Week."
Certainly, the situation is taking place mostly in the United States, but a wind of censorship is also blowing through Europe, and it would not be impossible for slightly more conservative powers to try to do the same thing as some American governors. So teachers, parents and book advocates will have to reiterate that removing books does not remove either the presence of sensitive subjects or the current and present faults.
Rather than banning, let's take advantage of these writings to exchange and discuss these topics in a more civilized way than on social networks. Let us finally recall that creations considered classics such as "Les Misérables", "Madame Bovary", "Lolita" and even "The Odyssey" have been censored or it has been requested that they be censored. Yet, despite the campaigns, these works are still available for consultation today. Which just goes to show the illusory usefulness of the act of censorship.
Illustration : Freddy Kearney on Unsplash
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