Friday, September 29, 2006

Forbidden Reading

Alberto Manguel devotes a chapter to "Forbidden Reading" in A History of Reading and he begins the chapter by telling us that Charles II of England decreed in 1660 that natives, servants and slaves of the British colonies should be instructed in Christian precepts and that Charles believed that each individual's salvation depended on his ability to read the Bible for himself.

Slave owners did not cotton to a decree that would educate their property. Laws prohibiting the teaching of slaves to read were passed in the South:

For centuries Afro-American slaves learned to read against extraordinary odds, risking their lives in a process that, because of the difficulties set in their way, sometimes took several years. The accounts of their learning are many and heroic. Ninety-year-old Belle Myers Carothers--interviewed by the Federal Writers' Project, a commission set up in the 1930s to record, among other things, the personal narratives of former slaves--recalled that she had learned her letters while looking after the plantation owner's baby, who was playing with alphabet blocks. The owner, seeing what she was doing, kicked her with his boots. Myers persisted, secretly studying the child's letters as well as a few words in a speller she had found. One day, she said, "I found a hymn book. . . and spelled out 'When I Can Read My Title Clear.' I was so happy when I saw that I could really read, that I ran around telling all the other slaves." Leonard Black's master once found him with a book and whipped him so severely "that he overcame my thirst for knowledge, and I relinquished its pursuit until after I absconded." Doc Daniel Dowdy recalled that "the first time you was caught trying to read or write you was whipped with a cow-hide, the next time with a cat-o-nine-tails and the third time they cut the first joint off your forefinger." Throughout the South, it was common for plantation owners to hang any slave who tried to teach the others how to spell.

Dictators have long known to limit literacy. "Censorship," Manguel writes, "in some form or another, is the corollary of all power, and the history of reading is lit by a seemingly endless line of censors' bonfires, from the earliest papyrus scrolls to the books of our times." The works of Protagoras were burned in Athens in 411 B.C.; Chinese emperor Shih Huang-ti burned all the books in his realm in 213 B.C.; Goethe likened the burning of a book in Frankfurt to an execution; Goebbels burned more than 20 thousand books in Berlin on May 10, 1933, in front of a cheering crowd. "Obscenities of the past," Goebbels called them, burning works that night by H.G. Wells, Proust, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Marx, Zola and Einstein.

Manguel gives three pages worth of attention to Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in New York and namesake of the Constock Laws, who bragged two years before his death, "In the forty-one years I have been here, I have convicted persons enough to fill a passenger train of sixty-one coaches, sixty coaches containing sixty passengers each and the sixty-first almost full. I have destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature." Authors Comstock censored included Boccaccio, Walt Whitman, Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw. His "fervour," Manguel claims, was responsible for at least 15 suicides.

He touches upon the Index of Forbidden Books, the 1981 banning of Don Quixote in Chile, and the centuries-long fear of fiction (especially fantasy), before explaining how "censors can also work in different ways, without need of fire or courts of law. They can reinterpret books to render them serviceable only to themselves, for the sake of justifying their autocratic rights."

Manguel tells us of the military coup that took place in 1976, while he was a high school student in Argentina:

What followed was a wave of human-rights abuses such as the country had never seen before. The army's excuse was that it was fighting a war against terrorists; as General Videla defined it, "a terrorist is not just someone with a gun or bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilization." Among the thousands kidnapped and tortured was a priest, Father Orlando Virgilio Yorio. One day, Father Yorio's interrogator told him that his reading of the Gospel was false. "You interpreted Christ's doctrine in too literal a way," said the man. "Christ spoke of the poor, but when he spoke of the poor he spoke of the poor in spirit and you interpreted this in a literal way and went to live, literally, with poor people. In Argentina those who are poor in spirit are the rich and in the future you must spend your time helping the rich, who are those who really need spiritual help."

Manguel reminds us that readers can also lie, "wilfully declaring the text subservient to a doctrine, to an arbitarary law, to a private advantage, to the rights of slave-owners or the authority of tyrants."


  1. I just got a copy of the Manguel book myself and am looking forward to reading it! Comstock was an all around nasty piece of work. He had his fingers in all the pots. I remember reading about him in relation to Margaret Sanger and birth control. I am sure he loved to burn her pamphlets and writings as well! It makes me want to pull every banned copy of a book I have and start reading it just to spite these people!!

  2. Anonymous9:34 AM

    I am tryinf to solve a doubt. Could you help me? In 1976 Manguel was living in Tahiti (according to wikipedia). At that time he was 28 years old, so I think he is probably mistaken in that and he was not at high school at that time. Perhaps he is talking about the year 1967, he finished high school in 1966. In 1967 the general Ongania (and not Videla) took the power. Thanks for your help.

  3. I have seen this book in the stores-I have to read it-even not to long ago we have the cultural revolution in China and the killing of around 2 million people in Cambodia which were both intended to be purges of decadent "intellectuals"-a war on those in the reading life for sure


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