The brutal attack on author Salman Rushdie in New York on August 12 has reignited discussions around censorship in literature.
Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” an ambitious work of magical realism, received one of the most violent and enduring backlashes in literary history for its treatment of Islamic lore. Its 1988 release was met with demonstrations, riots and bans in Muslim-majority countries. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in 1989 calling for the author and everybody who worked on the book to be killed, after which an Italian translator of the novel was stabbed, a Japanese translator of “The Satanic Verses” murdered, and a Norwegian publisher shot and wounded. Rushdie was forced into hiding for years; the book is still banned in more than a dozen countries, including Iran, India and Kenya.
The motive behind this month’s attack on Rushdie is still unclear, but the incident “highlights that suppression and censorship of books has been going on for centuries and is still happening today,” said Pom Harrington, director of the upcoming Firsts: London Rare Book Fair, which centers around the theme of banned books.
The fair, which features more than 120 exhibitors and runs September 15-18 at London’s Saatchi Gallery, encompasses a broad sweep of censored titles cutting across history and geography. It will include books banned for obscenity, blasphemy and security reasons, among them the discoveries of Copernicus and an edition of “Dr. Zhivago” covertly published by the CIA to undermine the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The event commemorates the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s epic “Ulysses,” which was banned in both the United States and the United Kingdom upon its initial release; a signed first edition of “The Satanic Verses” will also be on show.
A common theme of book bans throughout history is that censorship tends to backfire and make its targets more popular, said Harrington pointing to the case of “Spycatcher,” an autobiography by a former MI5 officer that became a bestseller after it was banned in 1987.
“The more you suppress, the more people fight it,” he added.
The fair’s collection of censored works features a number of titles, including the ones below, that are considered classics in some jurisdictions and contraband in others.
“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
Nabokov’s story of a pedophile’s infatuation with a young girl predictably fell foul of censors in the UK, so French publisher Maurice Girodias – a champion for banned works who specialized in erotica – put the first copies into print. English novelist Graham Greene campaigned for the novel’s release in Europe, arguing “Lolita” was a metaphor for the corruption of the old world (Europe) by the new (the United States). Bans in several countries were overturned by the time Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation came out in 1962, and the book became a hit. But it remains high on the list of the most banned and challenged texts in US schools and libraries, according to the American Library Association.