‘Dangerous’ books too powerful to read


The legend of the Sibylline Books tells us that in an ancient city, a woman offered to sell her citizens 12 books containing all the knowledge and wisdom of the world, for a high price. They refused, thinking her request was ridiculous, so she burned half the books on the spot, then offered to sell the remaining six for double the price. The citizens laughed at her, a little ill at ease this time. She burned three, offering the rest, but again doubling the price. Somewhat reluctantly – times were tough, their troubles seemed to be multiplying – they fired her once again. Finally, when only one book remained, the citizens paid the extraordinary price the woman now demanded, and she left them alone, to make do as best they could with a twelfth of all knowledge and the wisdom of the world.

Books are carriers of knowledge. They are pollinators of our minds, spreading self-replicating ideas across space and time. We forget what a miracle it is that marks on a page or a screen can allow communication from one brain to another at the other end of the globe, or at the other end of the century.

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Books are, as Stephen King said, “unique portable magic” – and the portable part is as important as the magic. A book can be carried away, kept hidden, your own private storehouse of knowledge. (My son’s diary has an ineffective – but symbolically important padlock.) The power of words inside books is so great that it has long been customary to erase certain words: like swear words, like any person encountering a “d—-d” in a 19th century novel will know; or words too dangerous to write, such as the name of God in some religious texts.

Books are carriers of knowledge, and knowledge is synonymous with power, which makes books a threat to authorities – governments and self-appointed rulers – who want to have a monopoly on knowledge and control what their citizens think. And the most effective way to exercise that power over books is to ban them.

Book banning has a long and dastardly history, but it’s not dead: it remains a thriving industry. This week is the 40th anniversary of Banned Books Week, an annual event “celebrating the freedom to read”. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to an increase in book protests in schools, libraries and bookstores.

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