I had no idea that there existed a banned books week, a time set aside for talking about banned books, but it’s a fine time to remember my school days.
I grew up in East Germany and for a society that openly riled at the Nazis’ book burning sessions, we certainly had a lot of books I couldn’t get my hands on growing up. And there were probably even more that I wasn’t even aware of.
Of course, banning books is entirely pointless. Or good advertising.
Most of us suffer from forbidden fruit syndrome, so as soon as we’re told we’re not allowed to read something, most of us will go to extraordinary lengths to get our hands on the text.
There were plenty of books, while I grew up, that made the rounds clad in brown packing paper to hide the cover. And despite many being books that I wouldn’t have chosen to read in a month of Sundays, we devoured them avidly. All because of that brown paper, that yelled forbidden fruit like nothing else.
At university, I wanted to write a thesis on Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution – and needed my lecturer’s approval to request access to the restricted section in the library. Never mind that librarires shouldn’t have restricted sections, that wasn’t the only hoop I was made to jump through to read about Che. I was only allowed to read the book in the reading room and when I wanted to leave my seat – even if it was just for a few minutes to go to the bathroom – I had to return the book to the front desk.
Was all of this rigmarole worth it?
Did I turn into a different person because I’d read that book?
I really doubt it. I was taught from a very early age to think about what I was reading. So all the restriction did, was make me attach a greater importance to the content than it might have deserved in the first place. Which sounds very much like an own goal to me.
Restricting access to books or outright banning them wasn’t something that just defined socialist countries, of course. A year or so after studying Che Guevara biographies, the Berlin Wall fell and we were told in gleeful tones that we could now embrace freedom for the first time in forty years.
One of the first books I bought after that happened? A book Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had tried to ban: Spycatcher by Peter Wright.
Of course, it became a bestseller.