Burnt and Banned: Can the Ritual of Destroying Books Kill Thoughts or Ideas?

“Mighty words are indistinguishable,” says a comment in the video by veteran author Margaret Atwood, who, in collaboration with Penguin Random House, announced an “uncombustible” edition of her most famous work, The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only was this edition intended as a blazing deed to signify censorship against dystopian literature depicted in Atwood’s book, but it was auctioned this month especially for $130,000 in New York. The money raised supports PEN America’s critical work to address the national censorship crisis.

In reality, though, the author hopes to raise awareness about the increasing number of book bans and educational gag orders in US schools across the country with the video already garnering more than 5 billion potential views. “Freedom of speech is hotly debated… We hope it will raise awareness and lead to a reasoned discussion,” Atwood said in a statement.

PEN America has been at the forefront of fighting this wave of censorship in American schools. The recent “Banned in the USA” report documented 1,586 cases of individual books being banned in 86 school districts in 26 states.

Even at the annual PEN Gala in New York, writer and actress Faith Salie said the incombustible book was “made not only to withstand the fire-breathing censors and blazing bigots, but also to withstand real flames, those who might want to use them.” for our democracy.”

The non-combustible printed edition is made of black and white coated aluminum Cinefoils, used in film production to wrap hot lamps, which are stable up to 660°C/1220°F, text block hand sewn with nickel wire, commonly used in electrical components, which is stable at 1400°C/2600°F, head and tail bands are of woven stainless steel, used in the aerospace industry, which are stable to 1530°C/2790°F.

But the burning and banning of books was a kind of ritual in the past. From the work of authors like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud to American authors like Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller, powerful leaders and despots have done their best to murder, discourage or ban and destroy many thought-provoking writings.

While the right to dissent doesn’t seem to have lost its credibility, especially with the rise of social media, with desperate crackdowns, photos and videos going viral, a pertinent question to ask here is: Can this kind of activism kill ideas?

Book bans, burnings or educational gag orders are becoming increasingly alarming in this era of free speech, especially when the main targets of the censors have been literary works on racism, gender and sexual orientation, often written by authors of color and LGBTQ+ writers, as classroom lessons on social inequality, history and sexuality.

On the other hand, books do have an emotional power and at times it can be dangerous, intolerant, oppressive or ugly. There is no doubt that in recent years book burnings or bans have followed a pattern. Either they are offensive or violent or inappropriate for the readership. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was removed from a Tennessee school library because the spells in the books were real curses and endangered people with evil spirits. Not just Harry Potter books, but there are authors who have been given flak because of unappealing writings or hurtful feelings from the public.

Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms was a semi-autobiographical novel set during World War I, banned from newsstands in Boston for its sexual, “vulgar” content, and in Italy for depicting the military’s retreat into the Battle of Caporetto. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis was censored in Queensland for its extreme scenes of graphic violence. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was highly influential and was taken off the shelves or reading lists because of her maturing anatomy. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was banned in the USSR until the 1980s, and also banned from schools in the United Arab Emirates in 2002 for its depiction of a talking pig, which was thought to oppose Islamic values. EL James’s Fifty Shades of Gray was censored for its pornographic image. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain reinforced racial stereotypes. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird saw temporary bans in the US due to racism. Recently, the Russian war against Ukraine has burned the remains of paintings, sculptures and books as part of the destruction of Ukrainian cultural identity.

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