Why books are dangerous...
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
In response to my husband's suggested responses:
a) no, it's not because they hurt if you throw them at someone's head
b) no, it's not because they threaten to bankrupt you if you're in a relationship with a bibliophile
I recently read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 with my book group and by far the scariest thing for me about the dystopian future it depicted was the fact that books were banned. I live and breathe the written word and a world where I could neither read nor write would be torturous. I cannot imagine my life without books - when I've been at my lowest, I have escaped into the fictional worlds of my favourite characters and sought refuge within the pages of my favourite books.
I've recently started re-reading Ben Elton's Blind Faith (another book group pick) and came across this quote from its opening pages.
Stories are blasphemy and fiction is a sin, full of pretend people created by men...People who were the creation of a third party, fictional characters. A time of books, and not the sort of books that were still read in the Enlightened Age, not good books, books of faith, of personal enlightenment, aspiration and self-improvement...Not those kind of books, but stories, thousands and thousands of stories piled high on shelves. A whole nation obsessed with what was not true, corrupted by the delusion that what man could invent was more beautiful, more interesting than what God had created.
This struck me as particularly interesting because the books that are deemed 'good' in this future are the ones that many people in the present sneer at. It is also the fact that the idea that the worlds created by fiction writers are always better than the real world. I couldn't help thinking of Goldman's Lord of the Flies and Adrian Barnes' Nod and wondering if these worlds truly are better than this one.
However, the main question I found myself pondering was quite what it is about books that makes them seem so dangerous. If it was great political tomes that preached anti-establishment dogma, I could understand it. Abhorrent as it was, I even understand the 'logic' that underpinned the book burnings of the Nazi regime. However, when individual books are picked out to be banned, that's when many of the arguments for suppressing them begin to break down.
A good example of this is the infamous decency trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover in the 1960s, when the prosecutor famously posed the question, 'Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?' I can't help but picture thousands of women across the country reading the book and thinking, 'I'm supposed to enjoy sex?' much to the chagrin of their husbands, whilst their male servants eye them up from outside the big house, wondering if they can persuade the lady of the house to come and inspect the pheasants! The other point to make is that although there is a lot of sex in the book, the story as a whole is about so much more than that.
However, it is easy to look back at this from the 21st century and laugh at the provincial attitudes of the last century, but this does raise the question of offence - if a book is published that is so offensive, should it have been published in the first place? Are there any topics that are considered off limits even in today's more liberal society? Books like Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and even Harry Potter caused offence to many religious people. The controversy over the killer in J.K. Rowling's latest Strike book has been in the public eye more recently. Does Lolita glorify paedophilia and if it does, should it have ever gone to print?
It is easy to dismiss the notion that people are influenced by the fiction they read just as much as they are by parents, teacher, television, social media etc etc, but how many people can say that they have never had their mood changed by a book, or that their attitude towards a person, a group of people, or an event in history hasn't been altered by something they've read?
I don't have all the answers, but what I do know is this. If books are dangerous, then I like living dangerously!