CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 12 . . . .February 8, 2008
Forbidden Fruit: Banned, Censored, and Challenged Books from Dante to Harry Potter.
Pearce J. Carefoote.
Toronto, ON: Lester, Mason & Begg, 2007.
143 pp., pbk., $24.95.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.
Present and Future Challenges
In recent years, the motives for censorship have principally included the protection of family values, partisan views, and/or religious and minority rights. It is interesting to observe, however, that challenges to literary freedom no longer come exclusively from the right of the political spectrum. While they do continue to raise objections on the traditional grounds of obscenity and blasphemy, challenges from the left have increasingly focused on what is euphemistically called "political correctness." Both have one thing in common, however: they are directed at limiting access to works that do not represent the philosophy of one or another particular interest group.
The recent brouhaha over Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, first published in 1995, evidences that censorship is still alive and well in Canada and its schools. It is unfortunate that the actual and wannabe censors had not read Forbidden Fruit in which its author concludes that history has repeatedly demonstrated that efforts at censorship are ultimately futile. Censors should also be reminded that censorship is a two-edged sword. If someone claims the right to censor, then that individual cannot deny the same right to others.
Forbidden Fruit had its origins in Nihil Obstat: An Exhibition of Banned, Censored & Challenged Books in the West, 1491-2000 which was curated in 2005 by Dr. Pearce Carefoote, a scholar-librarian at the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and an Adjunct Professor of Theology at Trinity College. The exhibit's catalog, written by Dr. Carefoote, then served as the basis for Forbidden Fruit.
The book's opening chapter provides a superb overview of censorship, its sources and forms, both past and present. Since the invention of the printing press, censorship has occurred in two forms. A work can be censored at the outset, with the result that it is never printed, or the book does get published, but then its sale or circulation is proscribed. Up to 1720, the two censorship forms existed together, but since then, the latter has been the more common practice in the West. According to Carefoote, heresy, sedition and obscenity are the three umbrellas under which literature has traditionally been challenged (and continue to be) but, beginning in the 20th century, obscenity has predominated. As noted in the excerpt above, the traditional censors from the conservative (read "religious") right have been joined in recent times by the liberal left whose efforts at "political correctness" have morphed into what Carefoote calls "sociological censorship." Another change Carefoote notes is that the church and government, once often the same, were originally the leaders in banning and censoring, but today's censorship more frequently originates with individuals. He observes that "the twentieth century probably saw more challenges to authors and their works than any other century in history - not because society has suddenly become more restrictive, but because of the sheer volume of books that are available to a highly literate and more critical population."
Carefoote makes the interesting observation that "censorship is ultimately a reflection of the social taboos of a given place and time." He expands upon this point in the three chapters which follow and which focus on, in turn, religion and science, politics and philosophy and literature as a threat to social order. In each of these chapters, Carefoote clearly sets out the religious and political conditions which created the specific taboo and then provides numerous annotated examples of literary works, historical and contemporary, that were targeted for violating the taboo.
In his closing chapter, Carefoote brings censorship home. "The Canadian Experience" addresses what has been, and still is, occurring in our own country. As previously noted, Carefoote built Forbidden Fruit on the foundation of an exhibit of books housed in the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. Consequently, the inclusion of examples from children's and YA literature is rather limited, though Carefoote does incorporate authors Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence and Timothy Findley whose adult works, when utilized as school texts, have been challenged.
Throughout the book, however, Carefoote does speak to censorship in schools, and, in the opening chapter, he refutes arguments presented in favor of educational censorship. "By eliminating a title from a curriculum or school library simply because it is offensive to some people teaches the young that suppression is an acceptable way of dealing with controversy." Carefoote argues that "argumentation is always preferable to outright censorship." He also expresses his concern about that most insidious form of silent censorship, that which can occur under the guise of selection as teachers or teacher-librarians try to censor-proof their classrooms or libraries by not selecting anything which could possibly offend anyone.
Though it is an overused cliche to say that a book leaves a reader with much to think about, Forbidden Fruit is truly such a book, and the author, himself, provides one of the most challenging questions for readers to ponder as they work through their own personal stance on censorship: "What would my world look like today if the censors had actually succeeded, and the books [found in Forbidden Fruit] had been completely destroyed or never existed at all?"
Forbidden Fruit belongs in all public and high school libraries (plus district/division professional collections) and should be on the reading lists of professional programs for future teachers and librarians, both school and public.
Dave Jenkinson, who lives in Winnipeg, MB, is CM's editor and has investigated censorship in Manitoba's school libraries.
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