The practice of banning books is beyond a bit baffling, it is also fascinating. The first ‘official’ censorship, of course, began with the Catholic Church in 1559, an extensive list of forbidden books tasked to be made by Pope Paul IV. Since then, the practice of banning books hasn’t been limited to the religious, but been taken on by governments, schools, libraries, and organizations both public and private all around the world. Some make the mistake of assuming these books simply ‘must be bad’ if they are restricted so often, but the reality is that somebody somewhere will always feel threatened or offended by the thoughts of another and people of power will always try to enforce their thoughts and opinions on those who are subject to them. “The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world,” said Karl Marx. Well, I say: The one that chooses the books, rules the world, unless of course you allow them to choose for themselves and then you have to rise up and be a better leader.
Les Miserables, one of the most impassioned and well-written novels in all of history was often a threat to poor leaders. It is a beautiful story of familial love, sacrifice, tragedy, the history surrounding the French Revolution, and his personal views on the church and government. Hugo doesn’t pull punches, however, when describing these beautiful and tragic things, he doesn’t leave out a bit wretchedness, he presents the world as it he saw it, and in doing so was punished for it. Hugo was banished from France for life by Napoleon III for criticizing his government and all of Hugo’s works were banned in Russia by Nicholas I for the unpleasant way which royalty was portrayed in his novels. Not only that, the Catholic Church added everything Hugo had written to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (often referred to as The Pauline Index) for “sensual, libidinous or lascivious.”
These challenges did not merely last Hugo’s life time. His works weren’t removed from the Index until 1959. This essential piece of literature has been considered threatening for portraying prostitution, murder, the church as unimportant, and glorifying the French Revolution. 1959, such a time of the past… but the fight is never over. In 2007, Hugo’s grandson and an emerging author battled in the French courts over whether or not a sequel to Les Miserables could be published. This time, instead of contesting Hugo’s work, his grandson is fighting to protect “the spirit” of his work, claiming that Les Miserables should all be considered intellectual property. Valid perhaps, but what would Hugo say about his grandson banning an author?
Hugo was part of the original literacy war in Paris in 1830. In addition to his books being banned, his plays were also challenged. Authors and artists paid professionals to sit in audiences and applaud their plays in order to counter those trying to shut them down. Duels were fought, defending the right to write, one young man even died for the sake of Hugo’s Hernani. Protect the spirit of Les Miserables? Yes, please. Ban literature? No, thanks. It is up to the individual reader/fan to protect the spirit of an author’s work, though, choose NOT to read it. The government should not be able to authorize the restriction.
This coming Saturday, October 6th, Half Price Books Humble will be hosting a Read Out from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm. Come hang out with fellow book lovers and read a line or two from your favorite and most cherished banned or challenged book.
My post on St. Denis.