Forbidden Books


The Martyrdom of Sts_ Cyprian and Justina

“The world is tottering to ruin, evidence not merely of decrepitude, but of final collapse.”

News pundit last weekend?


But this particular quotation is a translation of a warning by St. Cyprian, written in the middle of the second century A.D.–before he and St. Justina (who turned his life around) were offed by the Roman government.

What causes social change? No way is there time or space to open that can of annelids, but one thing for sure, the history of publishing includes the history of governmental and institutional (and personal) attempts to suppress certain types of publications because the authorities were certain that some works would hustle that total collapse all the faster.

So, what sorts of things got banned?

Human nature being what it is, as soon as rudimentary printed woodcuts were invented, someone laboriously etched some porn. But alongside the bawdy were items  those in authority considered treasonous; within twenty years after Gutenberg invented his printing press, the Germans instituted a censorship office.

Book burning party 1643

Book burning party 1643


Over in England, Henry VIII was right on board with controlling London’s emerging press, forbidding work from overseas. In the colonies, the Puritans staged their first public book burning in the mid-1600s.


Human beings are as conflicted as they are gregarious; as strong as the impulse to mind everyone else’s business for their own good is the curiosity about the forbidden.

In France, according to Robert Darnton in his Forbidden Best-Sellers in Pre-Revolutionary France, there was a thriving industry called the libelles, whose product was aimed at the government and the Church, in as scurrilous and wild a form as possible.

According to Vic Gattrell in City of Laughter, between 1770 and 1830, during the so-called polite period of English history, London’s printshops published some 20,000 satirical and bawdy engravings. England and France’s coastal booksellers did landslide business shipping forbidden books back and forth across the Channel for the bilingual reader.

forbidden bookindex

Who printed this stuff, why, and how it was passed around makes as interesting a story as the history of mainstream literature. Did everyone read forbidden books?

If they wanted it, they could find it, according to researchers. How much influence did it have? A French writer observed during the 1700s, “The more a libelle is forbidden, the more it is coveted.” But then he added, “When you have read it and seen that it provides no reward for your audacity, you are ashamed to have run after it.”

The question of what was suitable for polite company changed as time went by. In his memoirs,  Sir Walter Scott, recounted  an old aunt of his requesting he send her the works of Aphra Behn, which she remembered with fondness from her youth.

aphra behn


She soon wrote back, . . . put her in the fire, for I found it impossible to get through the very first novel. But is it not a very odd thing that I, an old woman of eighty and upwards, sitting alone, felt myself ashamed to read a book which, sixty years ago, I have heard read aloud for the amusement of large circles, consisting of the first and most creditable society in London?

In the eighteenth century, Malesherbes, the official appointed by the king to take charge of the French banning books office, stated ironically that anyone who read only approved books would be a century behind everyone else.

Governments and institutions have largely been determined to maintain the status quo, and that meant limiting the free flow of ideas considered dangerous to the public good, whether political or moral. How that decision was arrived at is not always so easy to comprehend when we look back. John Milton even got in trouble for talking about the importance of free licensing.

Milton's banned speech

Milton’s banned speech

According to Darnton, the second most popular forbidden book (determined by looking at the strictly kept records of how many copies were confiscated and pulped) was Thérèse philosophe, a pornographic story about a free-thinking young lady, which is pretty much what one would expect (and spawned two centuries of enthusiastically drawn illustrations), but the big surprise was the top best seller, by a significant margin:  a science fictional look at a future Paris, called L’Ane 2440, or “The year 2440,” written by Louis-Sebastien Mercier.

When one reads a summary of the plot now, we can understand why there isn’t a copy around even on university reading lists. A bigger snore fest would be difficult to find.

Its only interest would be as a social-history curiosity, as the plot (what there was of it) consisted of a man falling asleep in 1771 and waking up several centuries later, whereupon he walks around Paris looking at how things had changed, until he falls asleep again and wakes up in his own time.

So what was the content that was deemed so dangerous?


fr rev fashion

Mercier’s Utopian Paris features people, poor and aristocrat, dressed pretty much alike, in comfortable, loose clothing, their hair simply tied back instead of piled up and plastered and powdered in the torturous fashions of the time.

Nobody wears swords, as those are emblems of “the old prejudice of Gothic chivalry.” Everyone has access to the king; public space is open to all; the Bastille has been replaced by the Temple of Clemency, the royal palaces are now homes for artists, and the pestilential “hospital” of the time has been replaced by a Temple of Inoculation, where everyone gets preventive medicine, but if they do fall ill, they are given private beds and excellent care in public hospitals.

Religious expression is now a universal and inclusive awareness of the Supreme Being, which has resulted in the entire city becoming pious—and also educated in sciences and civics as well as art.


Overall, a lot of it sounds civilized to us, or at least pretty tame. But the lesson of this book, with everyone thriving after the banishment of standing armies, aristocrats, priests, prostitutes, beggars, arbitrary arrest, taxes, coffee, tea, tobacco, and pastry cooks, read like a specific and energetic indictment of everything the Ancien Regime stood for—and every authority figure during the late eighteenth century knew it.

This book stayed popular for several decades—including during and after the French Revolution. Some maintained that l’Ane 2440 was a harbinger of the Revolution, though there was no evidence at the time, according to Darnton, that Mercier foresaw the upheaval to come. (Though in later editions, as he kept tinkering with the content, he claimed to have foretold the Revolution.)

In spite of the First Amendment, in the US there was vigorous press policing in all directions, culminating in Congress passing the Comstock Law—which led to bannings of such porn faves as the Canterbury Tales, the Arabian Nights (both of which admittedly have some fairly hot scenes, popular for centuries), and authors such as John Steinbeck and Victor Hugo.

The twentieth century saw a gradual relaxation of banning until the Comstock Law was struck down in the mid-sixties. Hardcore porn was relegated to its own closed-off sections of “adult” book and film stores, and you can find anything you want on the Internet. The attitude in today’s society seems to be that adults are capable of making up their own minds.


That attitude comes to a screeching halt when the subject of children is brought up. As soon as someone takes the moral high ground with the words, We have to think of the children! out come the committees and groups and coalitions and organizations.

a wrinkle in time--banned book!

Sometimes these groups do good work on behalf of those who cannot protect themselves, but other times it seems that emotion is mistaken for principle, and reason seems to go out the window.

So, in the name of the children, we get situations like, in 1989, a kiddie book about Little Red Riding Hood being banned because, as its organization ranted before a quailing school board, the illustration of Little Red bringing a basket of food to Gramma might encourage an interest in alcohol.

A Wrinkle in Time got on the hit list for mentioning Jesus Christ in the context of famous figures fighting against evil. The Great Gilly Hopkins, another award winner about a girl emerging from childhood into adolescence, got slammed for a scene in which she chews gum.


Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Silas Marner, and the works of Shakespeare have been deemed unfit for youth to read, by some group or other.

The toughest challenge comes with respect to kids. Parents or guardians of kids usually sympathize with the fierce desire to protect one’s children from the horrors and uglinesses that can happen in the world, but sympathy can snap into antipathy when someone uses their sense of moral superiority to decide for you what your children can, or cannot, experience.


When I was a teacher, occasionally parents asked me about specific books, as in “Should my child read this?” I might recommend or caution depending on what I knew about the kid’s interests and reading level, as well as their home background, but I always encouraged parents to read the book in question first, and if the kid was insistent on reading it because everybody else was, be prepared to have a family discussion about it.

Open communication between parents and children seems the best way to establish a solid moral core; certainly the saddest thing (to me) was seeing children who had learned to lie to their parents rather than be punished for their curiosity. Those were the children who, when conflicted between what they were told at home and what they heard in the rest of the world, turned to the schoolyard for answers.



Forbidden Books — 10 Comments

  1. I have no taste for most of the things the Powers would like to restrict or forbid, but as others do and freedom of expression does more good than harm, let them publish.

  2. I give the same advice to parents concerned about their children’s reading–and usually the answer is “I don’t have time; just tell me what to give them.” Which is a terrible burden to place on an outsider, who doesn’t always know what things those parents worry about exposing their children to. I knew one LDS parent who banned Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books on the grounds that they depict witchcraft (this based on the cover art), but was perfectly fine with her kids reading Orson Scott Card’s books because he’s also LDS (without ever having read his books herself). Parents who care about what their children read frequently lack the tools to do so, which is how they end up making judgments based on book covers or shared religious beliefs. And I think some of the other tools, such as websites that post content-ranked reviews, are unreliable because they’re just a subtler form of censorship. I guess I sympathize with parents who can’t keep up with their children’s reading, but there are other ways to handle guiding children’s reading, such as encouraging children to come to their parents with questions about material their parents might have steered them away from if they knew about it. And ultimately, finding a trusted source of information about a book’s contents may be some parents’ only option.

    • Yes/ That openness of communication between parent and child is vital. I recollect sadly one parents at the school I taught at being determined to keep their young teen daughters “pure” (this came out when they tried to get me fired for showing the first half of Camelot to middle schoolers after our unit on Malory. The girls were only allowed to read certain books, and only permitted to see Disney movies. And I knew these little princesses were watching Beaches and the like at their sleepovers, after the parents went to bed. They were turning into hypocrites, and going about in secret because the parents were so harshly determined to keep them in that little box. I did not lose my job (the director had in fact given me her copy of camelot to show them, but I chose not to let the kids see the second half), but I lost my battle to get those parents to read and view first, and talk to their kids.

  3. My parents went with the “if it’s on a shelf you can reach, you can read it” option, and I turned out — at least in my own opinion — okay, so I did the same with my own kids when the time came. It appears to have worked all right the second time around as well.

    (The only books I remember as consistently being on a shelf taller than I could reach were a complete set of the Sir Richard Burton translation of the Arabian Nights, and that may have been as much a storage issue as anything else.)

      • That’s the thing – kids only process as much information as their comprehension at whatever developmental stage they’re at allows. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, and more than once I put a book down in disgust because I just couldn’t get into it. But it’s amazing the kinds of x-rated things you can learn simply reading the dictionary…

        I remember our oldest going on a Goosebumps bender for a couple of years – a series I detested, not because of its content, but because it was so full of careless grammatical errors that, in my mind, it completely negated the “at least they’re reading” argument. And then one day he picked up the copy of The Giver by Lois Lowry we had put on the shelf, and never looked back.

  4. On a slightly different note, we’ve come to accept the process of editing as a necessary part of writing, internalising the idea that writers should never trust their own creative instincts in producing a work, because, well, they can’t possibly know how their story should go, can they?

    We don’t edit painters or sculptors or photographers, or even composers (although there is a fair amount of product massaging in the mainstream music industry). The only other creative genre that is subject to this kind of mandatory and comprehensive editing is the film industry – and that’s just a visual extension of literary story-telling. I realise that painters and composers have traditionally worked within certain social frameworks and restraints when creating their work, but they have never been subjected to outside modification (no-one came by with a committee of paintbrushes to alter the Mona Lisa before it was deemed marketable) in the same way as writers.

    I can understand where literary editing had its roots, particularly with the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of story-tellers who may or may not have had any schooling. An editor would be instrumental in that regard. And then, of course, there would be the issue of space limitations, and the need to reduce the length of an item so it would fit the page (paper being at a premium and all).

    But there’s also a very strong component of censorship in the process which makes me leery. It’s an issue that many authors have noted in their experience of the publishing world. Take Emily Dickinson, for example: there’s much evidence that she compiled her body of work and kept it private rather than expose it to the editing butchery that befell the handful of her poems that were published.

    I just think it’s interesting that we trust a painter to paint their story (and we accept – or reject – it as such) but we don’t trust a writer to do the same. Perhaps words really are more dangerous.

    • I see where you are going, but then so very many painters, sculptors and composers got critique from colleagues and audience, and many rewrote pieces after initial performances, or repainted, or smoothed.

      What we see and remember are the very best works. And those of us who are not genius really do need feedback to see our own work fresh.