The “dangerous” books too powerful to read

The legend of the Sibillini Books tells that in an ancient city a woman offered to sell to her citizens 12 books containing all the knowledge and wisdom of the world, at a high price. They refused, they thought her request was ridiculous, so she burned half the books right then and then she offered to sell the remaining six for double the price. Her citizens laughed at her, this time a little uncomfortably. She burned three, offering the rest, but doubling the price again. Reluctantly – times were tough, their problems seemed to multiply – she dismissed her once again. Eventually, when there was only one book left, the townspeople paid the extraordinary price the woman was now asking, and she left them alone, best managing their possibilities with a twelfth of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world.

Books bring knowledge. They are pollinators of our minds, spreading self-replicating ideas across space and time. We forget what a miracle it is that the signs on a page or a screen can allow communication from one brain to another on the other side of the globe, or the other side of the century.

More so:
– The radical books that rewrite sex
– Because the hardest novel in the world is so rewarding
– The neglected masterpieces of 1922

Books are, as Stephen King put it, “uniquely portable magic” – and the portable part is as important as the magic. A book can be taken away, kept hidden, your private repository of knowledge. (My son’s personal diary has an ineffective, but symbolically important lock.) The power of words within books is so great that it is customary for some words to be erased for some time: as bad words, like anyone who encounters a “d – -d “in a 19th century novel will know; or words too dangerously powerful to be written, such as God’s name in some religious texts.

Books bring knowledge, and knowledge is power, which makes books a threat to authorities – governments and self-styled leaders alike – who want to have a monopoly on knowledge and control what their citizens think. And the most effective way to exercise this power over books is to ban them.

The banning of books has a long and ignoble history, but it is not dead: it remains a thriving industry. This week marks the 40th anniversary of Banned Books Week, an annual event that “celebrates the freedom to read.” Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to increasing book challenges in schools, libraries and bookstores.