In this provocative study of censorship as it was practiced in three different places at three different times, the distinguished scholar Robert Darnton argues that it can be a considerably subtler and more nuanced undertaking than it is generally assumed to be. He has not written a defense of censorship — far from it — but he emphasizes that when the state sets itself up as arbiter of what goes into books and what does not, the results are not always predictable, but are sometimes surprising and even — occasionally — beneficial to authors and their publishers.

Darnton begins with a brief evocation of the risks posed by cyberspace, where the instinctive assumption is that “electronic communication could take place without running into obstacles,” but where in fact “the Great Firewall of China and the unrestricted surveillance by the National Security Agency illustrate a tendency for the state to assert its interests at the expense of individuals.” Why, though, should we care today about the censorship of books in France during the Enlightenment, India during the Raj and East Germany during communist rule? Darnton explains:

“The history of books and of the attempts to keep them under control will not yield conclusions that can be directly applied to policies governing digital communication. It is important for other reasons. By taking us inside the operations of censors, it shows how policy-makers thought, how the state took the measure of threats to its monopoly of power, and how it tried to cope with those threats. The power of print could be as threatening as cyberwarfare. How did agents of the state understand it, and how did their thoughts determine actions? . . . I hope that this book, condensed as it is, will appeal to general readers and will provoke reflection on the problem posed by the convergence of two kinds of power — that of the state, ever-expanding in scope, and that of communication, constantly increasing with changes in technology. The systems of censorship studied in this book show that state intervention in the literary realm went far beyond the blue-penciling of texts. It extended to the shaping of literature itself as a force at work throughout the social order. If states wielded such power in the age of print, what will restrain them from abusing it in the age of the Internet?”

In France during the years before the revolution of 1789, a book “existed by virtue of the king’s pleasure; it was a product of the royal ‘grace’. . . . The book was a quality product; it had a royal sanction; and in dispensing that sanction, the censors vouched for its general excellence. Censorship was not simply a matter of purging heresies. It was positive — a royal endorsement of the book and an official invitation to read it.” Thus, the relationship between author and censor was as much collaborative as adversarial. The censors “wrote as men of letters themselves, determined to defend ‘the honor of French literature,’ as one of them put it,” and often tried to help authors improve what they had written. Hence, for example, “while examining a treatise on trade and exchange rates, one of them corrected the spelling and redid much of the arithmetic.” Darnton correctly says that “censoring with that degree of attention resembled the care with which readers assess manuscripts for publishers today.”

To be sure, not all of these relationships were amicable, and not all manuscripts found their way to publication — though many of those that did not were simply taken to publishers outside France, printed there, then brought to France (clandestinely, if necessary) to be sold. There were “contradictory elements at the core of the literary system of the Ancien Regime: on the one hand, a respect for the ideal of a free and open republic of letters; on the other, the realities of power and protection. Censors, like authors, had to operate in an area where this contradiction made itself felt in their everyday activities.”

‘Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature’ by Robert Darnton (W. W. Norton)

Another contradiction was at work in India in the 19th and early 20th centuries. On the one hand, British rule could be benign and the rulers could actively support the flourishing of Bengali literature, but on the other hand there were decided limits because of “an explosive passion: nationalism”: “As long as the contradiction between imperialism and liberalism remained latent, that passion could be contained. But when imperialism showed itself to be rule by right of conquest and when the printed word began to penetrate deeply into Indian society, the nationalists aroused a response, books became dangerous, and the Raj resorted to repression.”

It was a contradiction that surfaced time and again in the long course of the British Empire: The British urge to be liberal, humane conquerors invariably bowed to their fierce desire to keep the empire whole. In India this led to a long series of legal actions against numerous authors and would-be authors, actions the end result of which — conviction and imprisonment — was almost always preordained. The British “could have clapped the authors and publishers in prison without running them through elaborate legal rituals. Instead, they tried to prove their cases — that is, to demonstrate the justice of their rule to the ‘natives’ and, even more important, to themselves.” It was imperialism with a paternalistic face, censorship with a patronizing smile.

As for East Germany between the end of World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, “censorship was not supposed to exist,” because “it was forbidden by the constitution, which guaranteed freedom of expression.” Like so much else during the hegemony of communism there and elsewhere, that was institutionalized hypocrisy pure and simple. The system of book censorship was elaborate and rigidly hierarchical, starting at the top with Erich Honecker, general secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party, who took an active interest in the system’s quotidian operation, but becoming somewhat less rigid lower in the ranks. Darnton was able to talk to two “veterans of the state machinery for making books conform to the Party line,” who did not like being called censors and who insisted that “most censorship took place in the heads of writers, and what the writers failed to cut usually got filtered out by editors in publishing houses.” Anyone who has written for an institution is familiar with the practice of self-censorship, but it is a far more risky and ambiguous task when performed within an institution as inflexible as the Communist Party than it is when performed by a writer for an American newspaper or magazine.

The man and woman who agreed to talk to Darnton seem to have been honorable people. Certainly they knew how to look on the sunny side: “Censorship as they understood it was positive. In some ways, it was downright heroic — a struggle against heavy odds to maintain a high level of culture while building socialism. . . . They struck me as true believers.” But the odds were indeed heavy, as the frequent enforcer of them was the Stasi, the secret police widely and justifiably feared at every level of East German society. (For an especially powerful account of its workings, see the superb film “The Lives of Others.”) Writers who refused to bend to the system often faced unpleasant consequences, so it is hardly surprising that “despite the recurrent episodes of repression, [most] generally held on to their determination to work within the system.”

Though he is no fan of censorship, Darnton understands that it is often no simple matter: “To dismiss censorship as crude repression by ignorant bureaucrats is to get it wrong. Although it varied enormously, it usually was a complex process that required talent and training and that extended deep into the social order.” And: “The opponents often became friends. In the course of their negotiations, they were absorbed into a network of players and a system of relations that operated within the boundaries of official institutions. It was a human system, which mitigated the rigidity of censorship as the direct expression of reason of state.” In saying all this, Darnton urges us to see censorship as a deeply human process that can be terrible but can also be surprisingly benign. He is right, too, to worry that when governments are confronted by the reality of the Internet — even a government as ostensibly open and committed to freedom of speech as our own — they are more likely to operate in their own interests than in their citizens’. In the age of cyberspace, that is a scary prospect.

CENSORS AT WORK

How States Shaped Literature

By Robert Darnton

Norton. 316 pp. $27.95