The ‘dangerous’ books too powerful to read

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

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Books convey knowledge. They pollinate our minds, spreading self-replicating ideas through space and time. We forget how miraculous it is that markings on a page or a screen can enable communication from one brain to another on the other side of the globe or at the other end of the century.

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Books are, as Stephen King put it, “a uniquely wearable magic” – and the wearable part is just as important as the magic. A book can be taken away, kept hidden, your own private repository of knowledge. (My son’s personal journal has an inoperative – but symbolically important – padlock.) The power of words in books is such that it has long been customary to blank out some words: like swear words, since anyone who can guess a “d – -d” in a 19th-century novel; or words too dangerously powerful to be written down, like the name of God in some religious texts.

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Books transport knowledge, and knowledge is power, making books a threat to agencies—governments and self-appointed leaders alike—who have a monopoly on knowledge and want to control what their citizens think. And the most efficient way to exercise that power over books is to ban them.

Book banning has a long and ignoble history, but it’s not dead: it remains a thriving industry. This week marks the 40th anniversary of Banned Books Week, an annual event that “celebrates the freedom of reading.” Banned Books Week was created in 1982 in response to the increasing challenges faced by books in schools, libraries and bookstores.

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