Last week I was reading the magazine Publisher’s Weekly, which had an interview with the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, and in the discussion, the article mentioned her first novel, The Country Girls (actually confused in the article with a later memoire called The Country Girl, without the plural). The novel was published in 1960, and at that time, the Irish censorship board banned the book. To make it all so much more fun, the local priest in O’Brien’s parish burned copies of her book.
While I still sat holding Publisher’s Weekly in my hand, I thought I’m absolutely going to read that book. Any book people insist you cannot read is a book you should read, especially if the insistence comes from the grim gray monolith of the Catholic Church. Since I try to only buy my books from bookstores, rather than from Amazon (even though I probably pay more), I asked Tale Tales, a small independent store, to order the book for me. The clerk could not find the book still in print, so she ordered me a used copy from Great Britain.
I left the bookstore thinking about the enormous efforts people have exerted to control what other people read. The purpose of censorship is to try to control what people think, as the books are simply a conveyance of ideas. The ultimate power over other human beings is to control the very ideas moving through their minds, and from that point of view, every book represents a dangerous, uncontrolled freedom. For dictators, the world would be so much better with no books.
Western printing was invented around 1450, and the first Catholic list of prohibited books was in 1559. As with Edna O’Brien’s novel, books have been burned (most famously for us, perhaps, by the Nazis in the 1930s), and in some centuries it was not enough to burn the books, but the authors were burned as well. The Catholic Church was so adamant about mind control that a number of people who translated the Bible into local languages, such as English, were savagely burned at the stake.
Speaking of brutal savages, the Soviet Union—let us pause to thank God it fell apart—exercised one of the most rigid regimes of censorship the world has known. The Soviets controlled the content of every book, every magazine and newspaper, every radio and TV program, every movie, and with the invention of photocopiers, they controlled what could be copied. In one famous example, after the arrest of a political figure, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia mailed everyone who had bought the encyclopedia a page to be glued over the article about the arrested man.
Here in our own enlightened 21st century, within the last few weeks, another dictatorship (OK, China, now I’m talking about you) actually kidnapped booksellers in Hong Kong and dragged them off to China proper. Technically, booksellers in Hong Kong have different laws and can sell what they want. But when you don’t have any real laws in your own country, what do you care about technicalities? The purpose of censorship and mind control is to stop all ideas that people with power don’t like, and the authoritarians of China are becoming increasingly determined to control their people.
Preventing outside ideas from coming in has called on ingenuity from people who want to exercise censorship. In the 1600s it meant searching for books hidden in carts full of straw. In the 20th century it meant figuring out how to jam radio signals. Now, as China shows us, it means blocking specific sites on the internet. The cold brutality of censorship is ingenious, and the government of China has legions of programmers working to stop the Chinese people from reading true information.
From the point of view of mind control, whether it is in the service of Popes or Joseph Stalin or modern China, the censors are right. Every book could cause someone to think. Every website could carry uncontrolled ideas. They are dangerous. The invention of printing, for example, eventually led to the propagation of ideas from the Protestant Reformation, leading ultimately to the spread of democracy. Who could have expected that from the invention of movable type?
So we’ve invented the internet, and what will it lead to? While we’re waiting to find out, I’m going to get a copy of The Country Girls and read it, and as I read, I’ll think about that vile Irish priest who burned the book and tried to stop me, and I’ll say, “Here it is, motherfucker. You lose.”