It’s always nice to get feedback (yes, this means you). Ideally, rave reviews and letters that offer unstinting gratitude for the way in which the author’s writing changed lives for the better: but even negative responses show that someone, somewhere, has at least read you and cared enough to hit back. Scant comfort, perhaps, for the books that have been banned, burned and traduced across the centuries, but they are eloquent testimony to the fact that books matter.
The Nazi book-burnings – and what a difference a hyphen makes, doesn’t it? I would happily warm myself at the glow of Nazi book burnings – were organised by the oxymoronic German Student Association, who had not learned that you cannot call yourself a student if you burn books. As well as the usual dreary roll-call of Nazi paranoid fantasy – writing deemed to be Jewish, obviously – they turned their incoherent fury on books that were Un-German. That seems quite limiting. Can they really have burned everything that hadn’t originated within their (admittedly fluctuating) national boundaries? The estimate that only some 25,000 books were burned – yes, only: some must have been multiple copies and, as your bookshelves and mine bear witness, 25,000 is not a lot of books – suggests that this wasn’t a very thorough purge, and in my optimistic hope for redemption for us all, I like to imagine that just maybe there were one or two young people who were insufficiently carried away by all that heat and fire and, picking up a childhood favourite, hesitated for a moment and then tucked it quietly behind their copy of Mein Kampf. But spare a thought for the books that weren’t burned. Bertolt Brecht was famously – well, incandescent – that his work wasn’t influential enough to be worth a match. In a marvellous short poem, ‘The Burning of the Books’, he demands, ‘Haven’t my books/ Always reported the truth?/ And here you are/ Treating me like a liar!’ (incidentally, if you haven’t read any of Brecht’s poems, start now: the best of them are tiny crystal-clear scenes, at least as good as any of his plays and perhaps destined for greater longevity).
Burning is a lot more theatrical than banning (and goodness, how the Nazis loved a little bit of camp theatricality), but bureaucracies across the world have enjoyed a good ban whenever they get the chance. Usually, their targets are depressingly guessable, their reasons ditto, but sometimes, as when Lebanon banned the alleged book (James Naughtie’s priceless phrase, making him a god in the NorthernReader household) The Da Vinci Code, it feels like a case of right book, insufficient reason. Dear Lebanon, it isn’t only offensive to Christians; it insults the intelligence of anyone who can read (the endless adjectives, the dreary predictability of what passes for a plot). And before we get too carried away on a wave of let’s-hear-it-for-Lebanon, may I remind you that Ann Frank’s Diary is also banned there, for portraying Jews favourably.
I am in some ways delighted to discover that Australia has at various times imposed a ban on the oeuvre of Jackie Collins, hinting at a rich cultural aesthetic not normally paraded by a nation best known for Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Censors of Australia, I salute your good taste, but I still deplore your tactics. Have confidence in your engaging and well-educated citizens: they will spot rubbish when they see it, and are unlikely to be willing shellers-out of good Australian dollars on dross. Ireland, too, has an un-proud tradition of taking umbrage at books that it feels slight its image. Oh, the irony: which image do you prefer, Ireland? Being the nation that Edna O’Brien writes about (Ms O’Brien, it seems, has only to let her pen brush across a piece of paper for the book-banners to be saddling up), or being the nation that is so culturally insecure it can’t bear a tiny bit of criticism? The Roman Catholic church has had the grace and humility to move on from its book-burning past and tends now towards sniffiness and bad reviews: less spectacular, perhaps, but an awful lot more grown-up.
And grown-up-ness – in the sense of a rational, balanced response to things we don’t much like – is surely what we should be aiming at. So let’s have no more of book-banning, formal or informal. Yes, it is tempting to bring your little darlings up with minds unsullied by what you perceive to be the banalities of Blyton: but, Hell, no child yet died from reading a Famous Five, nor were any moved to go out and subjugate as a result: and a really large number of children learned to read with confidence and enjoyment by wading through the simple prose of the Adventure books. And then they moved on and found other things to read. So before we start compiling lists of books to ban, it is worth remembering that people read perceptively, subtly and in complex and multiple ways. Because I read a book, it does not necessarily mean that I think it is good. Why should it be? I might enjoy it precisely because it is undemanding/infuriating/mildly entertaining/soporific. And I think I should, at all costs, be kept away from compiling lists of Good and Bad books: so perilously close – don’t you think? – to demanding a world that conforms entirely with my world view. And then I start to hear ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’: as Woody Allen put it, ‘every time I hear Wagner I feel like invading Poland.’ No, read what you like: and be grateful, endlessly grateful, that you can.