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Don't read this!

The last week in September--Banned Books Week--celebrates the freedom to read. Various associations of libraries, booksellers, and publishers sponsor this weeklong commemoration to promote the free exchange of ideas and to oppose censorship. Not surprisingly, both church and state are missing from the sponsorship roster.

Many governments and religions have banned and burned books--and at times their authors as well. Perhaps matches should be banned from godly prelates and civic officials rather than books from the people.

In this country, despite the First Amendment, a spate of groups continue to challenge the right to read certain books. A quick glance over a list of the 100 most frequently challenged books from the 1990s reveals some fascinating chapters. Top among them is the Harry Potter series. Whoever tried to make these books magically disappear, thankfully, failed miserably. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee made the list as number 41.

Perhaps the most famous banned book list ever is the Catholic Church's now defunct Index of Prohibited Books. Established by Pope Paul IV in 1557, the Index was first published by the Congregation of the Inquisition two years later. Another pope--same name, different number--Paul VI, in the spirit of Vatican II, abolished the Index 409 years later. The Index supposedly protected the faithful, under pain of excommunication, from ideas they could not handle.

At the time of its inception, 10 rules were drawn up. My favorite is Rule IX: "All books and writings dealing with geomancy, hydromancy, areomancy, pyromancy, oneiromancy, chiromancy, necromancy, or with sortilege, mixing of poisons, augury, auspices, sorcery, and magic arts are absolutely repudiated." You may want to consult your dictionary on any of these subjects. Lexicons, to my knowledge, were not banned.

Among the more famous books and authors banned by the Index were the novels Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and Pamela by Samuel Richardson, often cited as the first English novel. The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, all philosophical works by Rene Descartes, and everything penned by Jean Paul Sartre were also prohibited. So too were the writings of Galileo.

Since the mid-1960s Catholics have had to struggle on without the help of the Index. I remember one case in the early '70s when the principal of a Catholic high school objected to an English teacher assigning The Godfather by Mario Puzo in an American literature class. He banned the book. For the next month most every student in the school sat in study halls, in the cafeteria, and on the buses going to and from school engrossed in this novel. By banning the book, the head man, quite unintentionally, promoted schoolwide reading of The Godfather.

That's the incongruous beauty of banning books. It never works. Ultimately the activity backfires and banned books take on more prominent and permanent lives.

Book some time the last week of September to read a banned publication. Better yet, get your local parish and your local government to sponsor an event during Banned Books Week to celebrate the free exchange of ideas and to oppose censorship. It seems to me both church and state need to show more spine.

PETER GILMOUR ( teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University Chicago.
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Title Annotation:Banned Books Week not supported by church; Odds & Ends
Author:Gilmour, Peter
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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