Banning and Burning Books

Thomas Jefferson, the founder of America, once quoted: “I am mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, the sale of a book can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too.”

Today, it is not uncommon to hear that a certain book has been banned in some countries across the world. Take, for instance, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. This book was first published in 1988 and is said to be inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. Though I haven’t read this book myself, I do consider this as an important example in the context of this topic.

Protests against Rushdie and his “The Satanic Verses”

“The Satanic Verses” has been banned since 1988 in Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, India, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan and many other countries. Copies of the book were burnt across the world, amazingly by people who either never read it or did not know how to read. The reason for the ban, we were told, is that this Novel (its Fiction guys) is alleged to contain blasphemy. Notwithstanding the fact that this book went on to become a 1988 Booker Prize Finalist and won the 1988 Whitbread Award for novel of the year, the ban on this 24 year old book still prevails in many countries. Not only that, the outrage among some Muslims resulted in a Fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran in 1989. To top it all, Rushdie, who should have been a national asset, was even forced to flee from his homeland and he now lives in exile in the UK.

Those who are in favour of banning this book claim that this violates their freedom of religion by being blasphemic, the opposite point of view simply states that works of literature and fiction should not be judged against blasphemy based on the interpretation of some sections of a religious group.

For those who might think that banning this book was no big deal, let us take a look at some of the other more surprising examples of books that have been banned in the past for some reason or the other:

  • The Rights of Man– by Thomas Paine, who is one of the founding fathers of America.
    This book was banned in UK.
  • Lolita – by Vladimir Nabokov
    The book is widely critically acclaimed and was ranked 4th on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century.
    This book was banned in France, UK, Argentina New Zealand, South Africa.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel – by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm – by George Orwell
    This book was widely censored in US and UK for being critical of USSR. It is a political satire and one of my favourite reads.
  • The Da Vinci Code – by Dan Brown, and now a major Motion Picture
  • Alice in Wonderland – by Lewis Caroll. Surprised?
  • The BibleNow surprised?
    Censored in dozens of countries, both historically and in the current era. Currently, the Bible is banned or greatly restricted in a number of countries including North Korea and Eritrea. Sometimes, the ban is on distributing the Bible in certain languages or versions. In 1234, King James I of Aragon ordered the burning of Bibles in the vernacular.
  • … and so many more.

For a more comprehensive lists of banned books that might surprise you, visit:

http://www.spaciousplanet.com/world/new/the-21-most-surprising-banned-books

Now, the question one needs to ask is this: Who decides what is offensive? And who decides what others should be allowed to read and what not? For instance, I might find a certain book offensive but what right do I have to deny others access to it?

After all, it’s not that a book is ever offensive. What people, who frequently get offended, really fear is an idea. It’s always an idea that they are uncomfortable with. For instance, the book, “Uncle Toms Cabin – by Harriet Beecher Stowe” was banned in southern US for its anti-slavery content. Yes! You heard me right, its anti-slavery content.

Galileo’s Mistake?

It is true of the history of our world that all great and revolutionary ideas are first met with resistance from the highest of quarters. It is only after they spread to the masses and people start to understand them that some sort of acceptance starts to come in. Take, for instance, the ideas of Galileo Galilei, the father of modern observational Astronomy, also considered widely as the father of science itself. Amongst his other accomplishments in the field of observational science, Galileo also championed the idea of heliocentrism – that the planets all revolve around the Sun and not around the Earth. This concept is, beyond any doubt, the universally accepted model of the Solar System and no one in their right mind would dare to challenge this idea except if they were insane. However, the same idea, led to Galileo’s being tried by the Roman Inquisition. He was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” due to his observations, was forced to recant his scientific findings to avoid being burnt at the stake and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. And all this, for observing the most basic of natural phenomenon.

It is to be noted that finally in 1992, Pope John Paul II formally acknowledged in a speech that the Roman Catholic Church had erred in condemning Galileo over 350 years ago for asserting that the earth revolves around the sun.

My point of giving this example is that in every age, most of the people of a society will have only a low intellectual capability and the ability to think for themselves. It is only due to the revolutionary ideas of some great thinkers and their perseverance against resistance by this multitude that societies are able to grow out of one dogma after another.

Imagine what would have happened if the heliocentric model of the Solar System was never allowed to be accepted. Would humanity have moved forward and made all its advances or moved backwards? What if the ideas of Independence and self-reliance continued to be crushed under the pretext of being offensive to the ruler? Would we have known the USA as it is today? Or the independent India as it is today? One of the most important contributors to the French Revolution was the same “The Rights of Man – by Thomas Paine” as mentioned in the list above.

Now, some people might argue that they do consider some literature to be offensive in a genuine sense. Definitely, it is possible that there might be some bad ideas. For instance, denying that Jupiter is just another world (planet), like the earth is, is a bad idea today. Slavery? Bad idea. Alchemy? Bad idea. But what we do need to note here is that none of these bad ideas were purged by banning books that talked about them, they were replaced by allowing the free flow of ideas that replaced these bad ideas. For instance, Alchemy was replaced by allowing Chemistry to be discussed and not simply by banning the thought of Alchemy itself.

Therefore, my point is that those who consider some ideas to be offensive or hurtful should endeavour to expose the fallacy of those ideas by writing about them through the same medium and presenting a strong case for their stand. If not, then nobody should hold people’s lives to ransom and demand that others’ ideas be forcefully suppressed. At the worst, if a book offends you, just don’t f****** read it.

“Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out.” ― J.K. Rowling

Next question that one must contemplate is: whether these bans actually make any difference anyway? In today’s information age, it is virtually impossible for governments also to stop anyone from gaining access to any idea, thought or book, whatever strategies they may try. It is just useless and therefore the civilized society should continue to allow free flow of ideas in order to remain truly free.

After all, there are millions of people like me who hate the idea of having even a single book banned. Yet, we do not take to the streets massacring hundreds or thousands, burning buildings and demanding the heads of those who did not allow us access to a book that we want to read in our own personal time. What we do is we talk about our opinions and blog about them because we know that our idea is simply better that their idea and that it will ultimately prevail.

Burning books has never been the answer to anything and can never be acceptable to a civilized society. Because at the end of the day books won’t always stay banned. They won’t always be burned. Ideas won’t always go to jail. In the long run of history, censorship and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is good ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” – Oscar Wilde

The sooner we realize this, the better we become.

 

Notes:

List of Books banned books: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_books_banned_by_governments

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The Voyagers

The Voyager Spacecraft

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – Photographed by Voyager

In 1977, NASA launched the twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts whose primary mission was the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. After making a string of discoveries there — such as active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and intricacies of Saturn’s rings — the mission was extended. Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune, and is still the only spacecraft to have visited those outer planets.

Saturn rings with “spoke” features in B-ring. Aug. 22, 1981. 2.5 million miles.

Their extended mission is now called the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM). As of this mission, the Voyager spacecrafts, which have drifted to the edge of the Solar system beyond Pluto, will continue to explore the outermost edge of the Sun’s domain. And beyond.

The Voyagers are currently in the Heliosheath, – the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. It is basically the zone beyond which, the Sun’s influence ends and we reach the interstellar space. And they are still sending scientific information about their surroundings back to Earth.

The Golden Record

But that is not all that is wonderful about these crafts. NASA has also placed a very ambitious message aboard the Voyagers 1 and 2. Each craft contains a 12-inch gold-plated copper disc, called a phonograph. This disc contains sounds and images that are selected to portray the diversity of life on Earth. The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by the great astronomer and astronomy populariser, late Dr. Carl Sagan of Cornell University. They have included a variety of natural sounds like wind, thunder, birds, etc. along with musical selections from different cultures and eras and spoken greetings from Earth-people in 55 languages. And a lot more.

The extremely ambitious hope is that sometime in the future, some extraterrestrial beings might discover the Voyager and will look at it and discover the Golden Record. They might not understand the strange sounds that the record will make. We don’t know if those beings will even have the same sense of sounds as we do or will their “ears” be differently capable? Will they have vision like us or will that also be like something we cannot even imagine? We don’t know. And they will never be able to figure out where this came from, which edge of our galaxy, which direction, which planetary system around which of the billions of stars inhabiting the milkyway. None of this will ever be known to them. And we don’t even know if there ever will be a “them” to discover our message.

At the time of writing this blog, I checked NASA’s website (http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/where/index.html) and found that the Voyager 1 is currently 18.169 billion kms away from the Sun. When you think about it, the vastness of this distance trumps our brains. Can we imagine a distance of 18+ billion kms? It is unlike anything we have ever measured on earth of course. Yet, in the context of the size of the Milky Way itself, this distance is nothing but a fraction of a fraction of a small dot.

The Voyager spacecrafts are both beyond Pluto and they find themselves in empty space now. There is nothing there to see, except darkness. There is no upcoming planet, no moon and no source of light as well. The Voyagers will continue their slow and patient journey for the next thousands of years or maybe much more.

Eventually, the Voyagers will pass other stars. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis. In some 296,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass 4.3 light years (25 trillion miles) from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The Voyagers are destined—perhaps eternally—to wander the Milky Way.

Will we ever hear from the voyagers when they reach there? That’s not possible. Will humanity even exist after such a long time? Extremely improbable. But whether humans exist or not, and whether some other extraterrestrials even find and read our message or not, we have already communicated to the cosmos announcing that we existed and dared to look up at the sky. We looked at the distant stars and contemplated the vastness of the universe. We understood and are still trying to understand what we see when we look up at the night sky.

Thousands of years into the future, we may not exist but this message will exist and probably through this, we will continue to live in a poetic sense. I am sure that the majority of people on our planet don’t even know about the voyagers and what I have described above. Most of those who do might never understand the depth of this endeavour. But it is important that we do know and that is why I am even writing this.

Does this adventure of the voyagers make any difference to someone when they are going about their lives trying to make a living, maintaining relationships, planning for their future, worrying about daily stuff, etc.? Maybe not. But then, neither does any form of poetry. Still most people are greatly moved by poetry and this lonely and courageous journey of the voyagers is nothing less than poetic. We may not be able to travel such interstellar distances ourselves because we are humans and need food to survive and we do not even live for so long. But we have made something that will carry out this journey on our behalf.

Knowing that the universe is largely a lonely place with nothing for trillions of miles and no one to contact is a saddening thought. Knowing that our efforts, however grand we might think them to be, are really never going to be good enough when you contemplate the vastness of the universe is a very humbling thought. Yet, we should take great pride in the fact that we know our limitations very well but we do not fear failure.

As Carl Sagan has noted, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

We may not have all the answers to all the mysteries of the universe but we do represent a thirst for knowledge that defines being human. And this thirst for knowledge, adventure, courage, hope and ambition for unravelling the mysteries of the universe will always be the symbol of being human. And having a common understanding of the grandness of the cosmos will only bring us all together. We will learn to care about the planet and our species because for over trillions and trillions of miles, we will not find another like us.

P.S: I am not a scientist or a science writer by any stretch of imagination, but what I do represent is my own thought and  understanding of the world. There certainly are better knowing people than me and I do not claim to be an authority on this subject and most of the factual data in my blog is sourced from NASA’s website: voyager.jpl.nasa.gov. What I have added are my personal feelings about this.

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