I recently read John Milton's Areopagitica. This essay is an appeal to the Papacy to drop the legislative censorship act that they had just put into motion. It's a selfish piece. Milton was viewed as heretic by many church members and he was afraid of his work being censored or unpublished. However, regardless of his intention in writing it, the meaning inside of it is relevant: you need to read all kinds of books to decide what you think is right or wrong and you should never be limited in your intellectual - and ultimately moral - journey.
For Milton, books are not just things we passively observe. They are active, alive beings that we must consume. The more we consume, the more we can figure out our personal ethos and the more we will be able to see right from wrong. If books that are deemed wrong by "tyranny and susperstition"* then members of society who can read will all begin to think the same, and in thinking the same there can never be any change.
I've pulled a few quotes for you that resonating strongly with me, as a reader:
"...for books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them."
"... as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself..."
Killing a book is worse than killing a human being in the eyes of Milton because you are killing the living essence of reason. Censorship is the act of killing reason.
I thought it would be good to look three banned books and explain why they were banned:
Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Why was it banned?: It was banned because it went against "public morals" due to the wife taking on a lover while she was married.** Although books with men taking female lovers haven't seemed to have ever been banned.
1984 by George Orwell
Why was it banned?: It was banned by the USSR because Stalin recognized it as a satire on his leadership. He didn't want a revolution to take place. The US almost banned this book as well during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Why was it banned?: It was banned due to the racial slurs, profanity, rape and other unpleasant images in the novel. It is still one of the most challenged novels in schools today.
I chose these three books to focus on because I wanted to point out why different books are banned. A woman taking control of her sexuality is scary and must be banned. The people realizing how terrible their government is and being incited to revolution is scary and must be banned. Racial slurs, rape, etc. is offensive and must be banned. And these things must be banned even if the larger message, like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, is actually anti-racism. The books must be banned even if their message is one of the most revolutionary ones of history, because it contains "dirty words."
Establishments will come up with any reason to ban a book, whether it be for sexual, religious or political reasons. They will mask these reasons by trying to tell you that banning these books is "good for you" and "protecting your innocence." But it's not. It's good for them, not for you, and the act of censorship will never be beneficial to the individual. Of course, you can run the risk of being "contaminated," and beginning to think in a more violent way, for example, but that is where Milton's personal ethos comes into play: that we must read as much as possible, see the reactions and the failures in history and literature, to grow and expand as a people. As readers, and as people, I hope we will continue to fight for our literary freedom.
* All quotes by Milton come from the Oxford World's Classics John Milton: The Major Works.