In Virginia, the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes mystery “A Study in Scarlet” has been removed from a reading list because of its portrayal of Mormons. I forgot it portrayed Mormons at all, but it turns out that it does, including an excitable fellow with three wives.
I found this out from Google books, where the entire text of the Holmes mystery is available with a few clicks.
Which begs the question: Can you really ban a book these days?
You can’t get a really good auto-da-fe going now like you used to. Burn books? Maybe delete them from your Kindle.
After digital transition, it seems like a delusion to say that you can ever prevent anyone from reading anything. Lists of banned books seem more meaningless than ever. Nothing is truly banned if it exists somewhere on the Internet, unless of course you are accessing the Internet from China.
But that exception suggests that this might be a false complacency.
Books are deceptively easy to burn. You can remove them from libraries and see the empty spot on the shelves. Alexandria goes up with a resounding gust of sparks.
But the upside to books was that you had to burn them to get rid of them. You had to go into the library with your pitchforks and torches and members of the Spanish Inquisition. Until you did, they were there on the shelves.
Ban a book from a reading list and everyone gets indignant! But forget to read it? It doesn’t make a sound.
Last summer there was all that fuss about people burning Korans, in an effort to generate enough news to warm themselves.
This summer, nothing. And still we don’t read the Koran.
Ray Bradbury turns 91 this month, and he understood the concept. His classic novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” describes a dystopic future in which books have been banned and everyone’s living room is full of wall-sized screens with people twice as large as life and infinitely more colorful. Firemen are men charged with burning the last surviving books. On the fringes of society, small clans of bibliophiles huddle together reciting Shakespeare and the gang.
But there are many ways of banning books. One is to ban them. The other is to replace an entire section of Barnes & Noble with something called “Paranormal Teen Romance.”
The ban seems hardly worth bothering. It makes them seem titillating! Urges people to read “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Much simpler just to lose interest in them, to stop buying real ones, to fill everyone’s lives with news that Hey, Abercrombie and Fitch Is Trying To Pay The Situation to Stop Wearing Their Clothes, I Feel Embarrassed For Both Of Them.
But as we get rid of our physical books (so long, Borders!) and our physical libraries (so long, Alexandria!) and replace them with Kindles (so portable!) and Nooks and the whole other range of concomitant abominations, books change.
Books, these days, are a kind of content that you pay to use. You don’t own records. You have legal access to an MP3, stored somewhere in the cloud.
Nice, until you don’t.
Anyone who used to own the rights to content from a service that discontinued knows the sinking feeling. You had it, and then it vanished.
There was something more reassuring even in Bradbury’s dystopia about the fate of books: resurrected painstakingly from the minds of readers rather than Placed On The Internet Somewhere We Can Refer To Them Any Time, Theoretically. Tug one line at a time lovingly out of your memory, there might be hope for the work. If you just stick it in the metaphorical attic of GoogleBooks, well, let’s keep our fingers crossed. Hackers exist. Files can be erased. Memories are unreliable but they’re the best hope we have.
Sure, the content now exists somewhere where rust does not destroy nor thieves creep in and steal. It’s harder to ban. But it’s easier to forget.
As Bradbury put it, “Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary.”