Why We Should Love the Book Banners

Last year, Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan’s novel All the Rivers was banned from the national curriculum of Israel. According to the Israeli Education Ministry, the book poses a “threat to Jewish identity” with its tale of a Palestinian artist in love with an Israeli woman. As a Ministry official told The Guardian: “Intimate relations, and certainly the available option of institutionalizing them by marriage and starting a family — even if that does not happen in the story — between Jews and non-Jews, are seen by large portions of society as a threat on the separate identities (of Arabs and Jews).”

Subsequently, in the wake of fierce criticism from both inside and outside Israel, the Ministry relented and decided to allow the book to be used in some classes — at the discretion of individual teachers. But by then the “damage” was done. Largely as a result of the publicity associated with the controversy, sales of the novel doubled and the work wound up being translated into 20 languages. The book has recently been issued in the United Kingdom, and Rabinyan will soon tour the United States.

That, in a nutshell, is what I really love about the banning of books — it nearly always backfires.

The very act of censorship puts a work at center-stage. The book becomes a cause célèbre: the sole focus of outraged editorials for or against, an item for extensive discussion on radio and television, and an object that all conscientious booksellers make a point of placing on their shelves — if not in their windows — as a sign of solidarity.

Meanwhile, demand swells. Readers gather. Some are enticed by the lure of the forbidden. Others simply refuse to be told what they shall or shall not consume in the way of literature. And the lion’s share of them only hear about the book because of the censorship furor. Indeed the uproar will cause many — myself among them — to pick up and read a book they might not have otherwise come across. I still owe a letter of thanks to the Ayatollah, without whose denunciations so many of us might never have discovered Salman Rushdie’s The Satantic Verses.

The same thing happens again and again. Appearing on The Daily Show in 2005, John Grisham commented on how challenges to his 1989 novel A Time To Kill “did wonders” for sales. He went on to recommended that fellow writers do their best to get banned. “It’ll give you more clout when you renegotiate your next book deal. Getting banned is wonderful.” Grisham’s novel was banned in Texas and Mississippi, ostensibly because of its portrayals of rape and violence, and its use of “curse” words, but also — truth be told — because of its depiction of Southern racial injustice. The book banners did their job well, stoked the fires of contention and publicity, and thus made the book a bestseller. I hope Grisham sent them all gift baskets. If not, he should have.

An old friend of mine, the singer and songwriter Lee Hays, spoke wryly in the 1970s about how he’d just as soon not have been blacklisted during the McCarthy era, if it weren’t for “the honor of it”. In the final analysis, as the history is written, it has turned out that the blacklist was a damned good list to be on — whatever the inconvenience at the time.

In the same vein, what writer doesn’t want to be in a club that includes Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, Ken Kesey, J.D. Salinger, and dozens of other major leaguers? Indeed, at times it almost seems as if there must be something wrong with a work should it not cause controversy. Is it not bravely enough written? Or (worse) is it simply not important or relevant enough to bother banning? (Keep in mind: A book does not need to be Lady Chatterley’s Lover in order to be targeted for censorship. Even something as benign, apolitical, and asexual as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild has qualified more than once.)

So, now Dorit Rabinyan enters the pantheon of writers whose work will reach a far wider audience than it likely would have without intervention by the forces of intolerance and ignorance. She and we owe them thanks. And we look forward with great anticipation to whatever great work of the imagination the censors might next choose to spotlight.

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