It’s Banned Books Week once again, a time to celebrate the freedom to read and to spotlight the necessity of free and open access to information. Genre fiction has naturally been the victim of unwarranted censorship over the past decades, due to it probably being just a little too fun and creative for some folks.
While raising awareness of this issue is key, what’s really exciting is when great writers strike back, utilizing the razor-sharp wit that makes their work so appealing in the first place. Below, we’ve gathered a collection of responses from famous authors speaking out against, banned books, burned books, and censorship in general.
Kurt Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country
“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.
So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”
Margaret Atwood on Why We Must Defend Writers (Speech to American PEN Literary, 2010)
Voices can be silenced, but the human voice cannot. Our languages are what make us fully human—no other creature has anything like our rich and complex vocabularies and grammars. Each language is unique: To lose one is to lose a range of feeling and a way of looking at life that, like a living species that becomes extinct, can never be replaced. Human narrative skills are found in every language, and are very old: We all have them. We writers merely use them in what we fondly believe are more complex ways. But whether written down or not, stories move—from hand to paper to eye to mouth, from mouth to ear.
And stories move us. This is their power. Written stories are frozen voices that come to life when we read them. No other art form involves us in the same way—allows us to be with another human being—to feel joy when he laughs, to share her sorrow, to follow the twists and turns of his plotting and scheming, to realize her insufficiencies and failures and absurdities, to grasp the tools of her resistance—from within the mind itself. Such experience—such knowledge from within—makes us feel that we are not alone in our flawed humanity.
Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451
“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.”
Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) in The Penultimate Peril
“The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding—which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together—blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labor that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author.”
George Orwell in F**K
“Early this year I met an American publisher who told me that his ﬁrm had just had a nine-months lawsuit from which it had emerged partially victorious, though out of pocket. It concerned the printing of a four-letter word which most of us use every day, generally in the present participle. The United States is usually a few years ahead of Britain in these matters. You could print ‘b—’ in full in American books at a time when it had to appear in English ones as B dash. Recently it has become possible in England to print the word in full in a book, but in periodicals it still has to be B dash. Only ﬁve or six years ago it was printed in a well-known monthly magazine, but the last-minute panic was so great that a weary staff had to black the word out by hand. As to the other word, the four-letter one, it is still unprintable in periodicals in this country, but in books it can be represented by its ﬁrst letter and a dash.
In the United States this point was reached at least a dozen years ago. Last year the publishing ﬁrm in question tried the experiment of printing the word in full. The book was suppressed, and after nine months of litigation the suppression was upheld. But in the process an important step forward was made. It was ruled that you may now print the ﬁrst and last letters of the word with two asterisks in between, clearly indicating that it had four letters. This makes it reasonably sure that within a few years the word will be printable in full. So does progress continue—and it is genuine progress, in my opinion, for if only our half-dozen ‘bad’ words could be got off the lavatory wall and on the printed page, they would soon lose their magical quality, and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common.”
And while this one isn’t from a science fiction author, we love, love, love this letter from To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee:
Editor, The News Leader:
Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.
Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral” has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.
I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.
Regardless of genre or voice, we encourage you to share your favorite responses to banned books below.