A love letter to banned books

How a semester of reading proscribed books broadened horizons and deepened love of literature

Updated - October 18, 2016 01:42 pm IST

Published - August 14, 2016 12:19 am IST



Last year, at the American university where I teach, I designed and taught an upper-division literature course titled ‘Banned Books from Around the World’. As the name suggests, for the duration of the semester, my students and I read and picked apart books deemed “dangerous” by various governments and the handful of people who insist they know what’s right for the rest of the population.

At my university, a semester equals four months, insufficient time to even scrape the surface of the total number of books banned in the world at some point or another. So I chose carefully, five long texts and a handful of shorter ones, their only commonality being that they had all caused “trouble” through words others had found too profane or capable of inciting religious violence or hurting national sentiments.

Here is what we read: the novella Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; two short stories — Lihaaf by Ismat Chughtai and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson; the travelogue An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul; the novels The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; and the memoirs Persepolis by Marjane Satrapiand Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie.

The big five If I look back and take stock of the semester, it’s interesting that my favourite assignment turned out to be the one I handed out at the very outset of the semester. I titled the presentation-style assignment “Favourite Books, Dangerous Books.” It contained two parts. First, students had to share with the class their reading profile — their five all-time favourite books, the impact these books had had on them, and how they had made them better writers, thinkers, speakers, etc. Second, they were required to answer which books they would personally consider dangerous or unsuitable, which ones they would recommend banning and why, and to whom they would give the authority to decide what should or should not be taught in schools. Would it be in the hands of teachers, governing bodies, parents and guardians, or with the students themselves?

Before the assignment was due, nearly all of my students came to see me in my office. They voiced similar concerns. The first part of the assignment had been easy, fun, enjoyable. In fact, the challenge had been to restrict the list of favourite books to five.

But it was the second part of the assignment that had them stumped. They couldn’t imagine banning a single book. They were young, forward-thinking, open-minded individuals. If ever they came across a book whose subject made them uncomfortable, they would stop reading it, but under no circumstances would they even toy with the idea of forbidding others from consuming it.

It is at this point I asked them if they had young siblings or cousins. Yes, nearly all of them answered. Imagine them at age nine, ten, eleven, twelve, I said. What then? What would you keep away from them? That changed their answer. And on the day of the presentation, they each named two to three books they would consider banning.

The purpose of this exercise was not to convert my open-minded students into stern, close-minded oafs. It was to help them realise that they were really not that different from those who had called for the banning of books. Whereas once they might have thought that the urge to ban came from a place of ignorance or intolerance, my hope was that they would now recognise that when it came to protecting loved ones, we were all guided by similar if not the same motivations. As their instructor, I strongly felt that one of my goals was to help my students acknowledge the Other Side and instead of merely dismissing them as foolish or crazy, to try and understand where they were coming from, and treat them with respect.

Because that, right there, is the greatest purpose of literature. It is not grades. It is not in the construction of the most grammatically accurate sentence. Its purpose is to create empathy. Empathy from the German Einfühlung , meaning, “in feeling.” Literature exists so we, flesh and blood readers, can connect with made-up characters in some fundamental, universal way. We go to literature not just for a great story but because good books show us how people think, choose and decide; how there are multiple perspectives and approaches to the same ethical questions; and how what is considered morally true and absolute in one age might not be so in the next.

What we could have read I finished high school in the New Delhi of 1997, the same year that K.R. Narayanan became the 10th President of India, Princess Diana died, and Bloomsbury published this little-known book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (interestingly, the Harry Potter series is also banned in places). I don’t think up to that point I had ever read a book that the teacher prefaced with the words, “This was banned in such and such country over such and such reason.” I wish that had happened. I wish we had read books banned by the British in India and those banned in our neighbouring countries. I wish we had dissected why seemingly harmless works of fiction such as Winnie the Pooh, The Lord of the Rings, The Arabian Nights , and Gulliver’s Travels have also been banned. Of course, as an instructor myself, I don’t recommend assigning texts haphazardly but there is much to be said in praise of books that make students a little uncomfortable and a little curious albeit from the relative safety of a classroom. I wonder how much more useful high school would have been if on the cusp of adulthood, my classmates and I had read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance , Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan , and Iravati Karve’s Yuganta .

Sure, we wouldn’t have changed the world. But it would have taught us that one person’s normal is the other person’s provocative. That if we don’t broaden our world, if we only read what’s familiar and comfortable, we hear echoes of ourselves. That complex books teach us how to analyse and argue. That censorship does not sit well in a democracy because it distorts reality. And that countries and religions that have survived centuries of human history are robust. They do not need our protection. They can take care of themselves.

Over the rest of the semester, as my students and I made our way through the syllabus, we chased several questions. In spite of our different nationalities and races, our discussions didn’t shy away from prejudices rising out of race, religion or other markers of identity. By the end of the semester, we hadn’t changed the world. All we had done was merely read, ask questions, disagree, research, and listen. I want to believe that was a good start.

Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between and the chapbook The House of Nails . She teaches at the University of Idaho and edits nonfiction for Crab Creek Review .

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