30 Jul

Map of the Week: Forbidden Books From Around the World

By Arden Benner

With the exponential growth of social media over the last decade, censorship—the systematic suppression of news, books, film, or other media considered controversial or threatening—has in many ways become more difficult. We often hear of governments cutting off their citizens’ access to particular websites, news organizations, even Hollywood Blockbusters. A severe example is the Myanmar government shutting down internet access to nine townships for over a year; isolating almost 800,000 people to news from the outside world (including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic). Throughout history books have often been some of the first victims in a bid for total censorship, whether it be politically, religiously, or morally motivated. In perhaps the very first attempt, The Odyssey was banned from Rome in 35 AD because it contained “dangerous ideas about freedom,” and now, almost two-thousand years later, the American Library Association releases an annual list of the 10 most challenged (formally requested to remove from schools/libraries) books. 

This week’s Map of the Week takes it a bit further. Created by GlobalEngishEditing, the map of Forbidden Books From Around the World takes a look at international literary censorship, offering examples of banned books from almost fifty different countries. Although there are several books that have been banned in a myriad of countries, and many countries that have banned innumerable books; this map displays some of the most recognizable titles. From these titles we can discern several themes or patterns in the banished books—what they have in common that have led to their exile, or in some cases, infamy. The two that are internationally the most common are:

Religion:

  • Noticeable on the map of Forbidden Books from Around the World are the multiple (seven) mentions of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Often considered to be blasphemous, the book’s publication in 1988 was met with world-wide protests. Rushdie was given death threats, and had a bounty put on him of more than five million dollars by Iran’s then leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.
  • The Bible is banned in the Maldives as it has been deemed an idol “contrary to Islam,” and it is an offense to import one into the country
  • According to the map, the Quran has been banned in North Korea. Although there is no official record or publicly available legislation that corroborates its appearance, the Pew Research center projects the Muslim population will only reach 3,000 in 2030. The North Korean constitution formally allows religious freedom, however there are reports that say it does not actually exist, and those practicing their beliefs are often met with unsavory consequences.

Obscenity:

  • American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis can only be sold in Australia if it comes wrapped in opaque plastic and the purchaser is a legal adult. Australia’s classification laws list the satire as “restricted.” The book, called “the most loathsome offering of the season” by the New York Times is extremely graphic. 
  • Fifty Shades of Grey flew off the shelves in America, yet in Malaysia, the film did not pass the censorship board. The books, however, were sold in the country for almost three years until the renewed discourse around the movie led to their banishment. 

While the freedom of speech lives on in the U.S., that does not mean our literary titles remain unchallenged. Many novels that go against what could be considered the academic or social norm face tremendous backlash. The American Library Association reports that “82-97% of book challenges…remain unreported and receive no media” attention. This can be especially damaging when there becomes a noticeable trend in the books being challenged. The ALA reports that 566 books were targeted in 2019, and out of the ten that were challenged the most often, eight concern LGBTQ issues. Most of these books were cited with not being age appropriate or too political. Increasing levels of unnoticed censorship is risky, and indicates there needs to be a conscious effort to advocate for new knowledge, new norms, and new standards in order to incite systematic, nationwide change—even on our library shelves.