“Torch every book. Burn every page. Char every word to ash. Ideas are incombustible. And therein lies your real fear." ― Ellen Hopkins
Papa John the self-proclaimed great African Mystic wanders into the bookshop, shouting into his camera phone about ether spirits in a thick, badly put on Nigerian accent. When the call ends, he reverts to his own Wexford town lingo.
“Alright sahn, what’s the crack?”
“How’s business John?”
“That’s Papa John there brudder. Don’t ruin me rep. I have eighteen clients now getting hexes and love potions and rain dances. All sorts of auld nonsense. Paying the bills though.”
“Look it John....ah Papa John... is this not kinda racist? I mean, you’re more Irish than me. Your family have been here longer than the state. Pretending to be a so called African mystic is....”
“I’m not pretending to be African...”
“You were born in Wexford, same as your dad.”
“Are you refuting that some of my ancestors were African?” he asks.
“I’m refuting your mystical abilities.”
“How dare you!” Papa John screams. “I have a right to masquerade as an African Mystic if I wish. You’re the racist. Half the bloody books you have in here are offensive.”
“Offensive to you?”
“No, but to somebody somewhere. I’m not asking you to burn your books so you shouldn’t be asking me to stop impersonating a negative cultural stereotype based on a long-lost ancestral throwback to another continent.”
Of course, Papa John, despite being a complete charlatan, fraud, confidence trickster and cultural-misappropriator, has a fair point. Someone will always be offended. It’s not a new phenomenon. Its been that way forever. The problem is when dogmatic fundamentalists weaponise being offended.
That’s played out many times before. Always at the expense of civilisation.
It’s led to.....
The Salem Witch Trials
Nazi Book Burnings
Writers sent to Siberian gulags
The mass banning of books in countries as diverse as Iran, Ukraine, the United States and, of course, Ireland.
In 1926, the fledging Irish Free State, under pressure from dangerous fundamentalists, established the Committee on Evil Literature to determine "whether it is necessary or advisable in the interest of the public morality to extend the existing powers of the State to prohibit or restrict the sale and circulation of printed matter".
For ten months a committee comprised of two clergymen, one Catholic and one Church of Ireland, and three lay people, met and ran through submissions from the public, eventually drafting a report to Minister Kevin O’ Higgins stating that the state needed much more power to deal with “morally corrupting” literature.
In 1929, the Censorship of Publications Act created the Censorship of Publications Board, a totalitarian book hating regime which gleefully banned some of the world’s greatest books including works from Irish writers such as Frank O’ Connor, Maura Laverty, Liam O’ Flaherty, Walter Macken and many more over the next four decades.
In 1966 Pope Paul VI formally abolished the Catholic Churches four-hundred-year-old Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the listings of books deemed so offensive to church doctrine so as to be banned or worse. This took the punch out of the Censorship of Publications Board in Ireland, with its remit being significantly reduced the following year.
“Book burnings. Always the forerunners. Heralds of the stake, the ovens, the mass graves.”
A young woman emerges from the crime section, casually browsing, and immediately catches the attention of Papa John.
“Hellooo bootifull ladeee,” he screams in his crazed fake accent. “Would you be in need of special prayers from great Papa John to stop your ovaries withering?”
The woman disappears out the door, another customer lost to fate. Papa John seems to contemplate her disappearance only briefly before immediately sending another in-character video message to one of his customers, promising her that she will pass her driving test on the will of his prayers if she should paypal him twenty euro before noon.
“Don’t you think what you are doing is immoral?” I ask.
“Immoral? My customers are the immoral ones expecting me to be some sort of auld witch doctor living in the jungle cause my skin is a slighter shade darker than their own. I’m just giving them what they expect through their prejudices and lived experiences skin. I don’t think it’s any different than a lad selling a gym membership myself.”
“You promise magical results.”
“Yah, same as the average gym membership!”
“People wouldn’t believe me if I wrote this stuff down Papa John,” I sigh.
“Yeah, they’d probably cancel ya for being intolerant and rightly so too. You can’t be recording deranged stories like that these days. It'll offend some poor soul and, worse still, revenue might read it and start asking questions about my income.”
The censorship of books is on the rise once again and that is no joke.
In the past year, America’s Index of School Book Bans listed 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles. These include ‘the Kite Runner’, ‘A Court of Mist and Fury’, ‘the Perks of Being a Wallflower’, and ‘Nineteen Minutes.’ Yes – Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes as hard as that is to believe.
Among the books being banned are ‘Beloved’ and ‘the Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison, an African American author, and a surprising number of books (41% of all banned titles) deemed to deal with issues of the LGBTQ community.
And the classics aren’t being spared either. There are regular attempts to ban books such as ‘the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, ‘the Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood and, of course, ‘1984’ by George Orwell.
It’s not just the likes of America and Russia that feel they have the power to ban books. Hungary passed new laws in 2021 to ban books relating to, or featuring characters from the LGBTQ community. China has always maintained heavy censorship and since they control the global market for cheaper printing, they effectively have the ability to censor far beyond their borders.
“I don’t like where society is going John...”
“Papa John,” he corrects.
“I don’t like where society is going Papa John. We’ve seen this all play out before. Fundamentalists, regardless of what sphere they claim or God they follow are always the same, funda-bloody-mental. They won’t stop until they burn the whole house down or until someone stops them.”
Papa John smiles faintly and helps himself to a coffee, never even hinting at an offer to pay. “Remember that auld Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang?”
“Not personally. Was he ever in here buying books?”
“In 213 BC, he buried four hundred and sixty scholars alive before burning all the books in his kingdom.”
“No, it was his way of ending history sure. Or at least controlling how history would remembering everything up to and including his reign.”
“And who cares about him now after all that book burning?” I snort.
“Amm, everyone. He was the one who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China too. He’s a fairly important historical figure skin. I’d say the auld book burning done wonders for him.”
Jorge Borges wrote an essay about the old Emperor entitled ‘the Wall and the Books’ where he philosophised that the act of destroying books might be an attempt at artistic expression itself. He referenced Walter Pater who said; “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.”
Perhaps the perpetually offended are attempting to create art as they stamp across the literature of the world. Perhaps the mass bonfires of books down through the ages were elaborate art pieces.
Or perhaps not.
“The books in this shop are endangered Papa John. If they’re trying to remove Orwell, Twain and Morrison now, who will it be tomorrow? If the right to read isn’t engrained beyond the right to destroy based on your own feelings of offence, there’s not a book safe on any of these shelves.”
“I tell ya one thing, I don’t think I can live in a world where I can’t exploit my own ancestry and society’s latent racism to line my own pockets. I’d have to get a bloody job in a call centre. I’d have to set fire to this place.”
“To remove us from history like the Emperor Qin Shi Huang once tried?” I ask.
“Nah, to claim the insurance like.”
“Books can not be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory... In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is a part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man's freedom.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
When the Regime
commanded the unlawful books to be burned,
teams of dull oxen hauled huge cartloads to the bonfires.
Then a banished writer, one of the best,
scanning the list of excommunicated texts,
became enraged: he'd been excluded!
He rushed to his desk, full of contemptuous wrath,
to write fierce letters to the morons in power —
Burn me! he wrote with his blazing pen —
Haven't I always reported the truth?
Now here you are, treating me like a liar!