Book Censorship: History & Statistics

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  • 0:02 History of Book Censorship
  • 2:18 Censorship on…
  • 3:21 Censorship on…
  • 4:07 Censorship on Social Grounds
  • 5:45 Book Censorship Statistics
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
Whether it's challenging the presence of a book on a library shelf or regulating a publication house, book censorship has existed before the creation of the original printing press. Explore more with a discussion of history and statistics. Then, test your knowledge with a quiz.

History of Book Censorship

As human beings capable of rational thought, we have the power to not only think a polarizing idea, one which another person would strongly disagree with, but also to communicate it. This is both the gift and danger of being human. We're free to think as we will, but so is the person beside us, and this very dynamic is often what sparks a struggle for power.

One area where humans have struggled for control or, conversely, for the protection of others' minds, is in the arena of the written word. Book censorship, the official examination and suppression of certain unacceptable parts of books, is presented all throughout history and is very much alive and well all over the world today.

Ideas have effects; they have consequences, and when they're largely disseminated to the public, as they have been since Gutenberg's first printing press, you can see where some would see this as an opportunity for mass control. Often, it's a majority or a few with power who are trying to suppress the minority or 'other' voice that might spark change and independence of thought.

Throughout history, people have censored books on religious, political, and social grounds. These contexts have been as diverse as a religiously motivated government trying to control the ideology of a society to the banning of a book in a contemporary local community.

Book censorship reaches back into even ancient history. Although Gutenberg created the first moveable printing press in the West in the 15th century, scribes hand copied or used other rudimentary forms of printing prior to that. Many earlier societies, notably Israel and China, perceived book censorship as a responsible and ethical way to shape the thoughts of their people. A famous historical example of a drastic attempt at book censorship occurred in 399 B.C. when Socrates, who had discussed literature about unorthodox divinities with his students, was executed.

Since there are so many instances of book censorship, let's consider some highlights from history, as well as what motivations drove censorship.

Censorship on Religious Grounds

One notable battle of book censorship was instituted by the Catholic Church. In the 16th century, Pope Paul IV introduced the Index Librorum Prohibitoru, or the Index of Prohibited Books, which greatly censored materials the Protestant Church could publish. The Church banned Galileo in 1633 due to his writings on the Earth's relationship to the sun. This threatened what they taught on the subject, so he was a deviant voice they needed to silence in order to maintain their authority.

Because of the strong correlation between religion and politics in general during this time, rulers not only instituted strict rules on publications that would threaten religious and political ideology for their own people but also spread these edicts to their colonized nations, notably Peru and other parts of the Americas. One of the worst offenses occurred in the 16th century when the Spanish burned the Maya Codices, which annihilated much of the recordings of their culture.

Censorship on Political Grounds

On the other side of the world and in a different century, the Russian regime enforced strict book censorship, specifically to control the political ideology of the people. It wasn't until the 1920s, when the works of Tolstoy and Lenin were popular, that this stringent band began to lift slightly. Occupied countries, such as Germany during the rise of Nazism, saw extreme book censorship, and in many of these situations, societies saw a dramatic rise in illegal publications, such as the samizdat in former Eastern Bloc countries. In the mid-twentieth century, the apartheid regime in South Africa used harsh book censorship and physical violence to squash the liberation movement of the African National Congress (ANC).

Censorship on Social Grounds

As we can see, cases of book censorship and the essential silencing of different voices has characterized our world's history and is at least present, if not consistent, among very diverse cultures. In the United States, especially contemporarily speaking, citizens sometimes raise concerns about a book based on social grounds, claiming that they're afraid the book's language or ideas will harm the young minds who are reading it. Parents also often cite religious reasons for challenging a book.

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