November 10, 2020

A history of book prohibition—and survival


Banned Books Week, an awareness campaign hosted by the American Library Association, ended last month. During this week, as we’ve written about, people celebrate literature that has previously been banned and raise awareness about the freedom to read. Many people are familiar with the concept of banned books, but if book banning essentially wipes novels off your shelf, how have they resurfaced?

There are many reasons why one might want to ban a book. Ultimately, it all comes down to control and power; eradicating certain values and beliefs by removing existing literature influences future generations with a mindset of what’s right and what isn’t. It’s unfortunate, but history is littered with examples of this, from the 1933 Nazi agenda to ban books of “decadence and moral corruption!” to the 2012 al-Qaida invasion of Timbuktu.

And yet, as morose as this article is shaping up to be, we have many people to thank for the resurfacing of banned books, even burned books. Wanting to dive into a history of the preservation of manuscripts, I went down a rabbit hole that instead landed me here: to knygnešys, Lithuanian book smugglers, and smuggling societies. In 2004, Jonas Stepšis recounted the story of his father and uncle who risked their lives to save their language and literature in 1899. In the 19th century Lithuania was seized by Imperial Russia and as a result, insurrection and oppression abounded. As Stepšis writes,

“After the 1863 insurrection was quashed, Tsar Alexander the Second imposed the most stringent of measures on Lithuania and its people. He installed a Governor General, one Mikhail Nikolaevich Muravyov, with instructions to produce a Lithuania “with nothing Lithuanian in it.”

In turn, the Lithuanian press was banned as was the Latin alphabet and Lithuanian language. In its place stood the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian language, this period of time becoming known as the “Forty Years of Darkness” in Lithuanian history. As the years went on and the Tsar issued a ban on printing and importing Lithuanian literature, underground movements and book smuggler societies sprouted. From Motiejus Valančius—a Catholic bishop who opposed the Russian ban and began smuggling books in the late 1860s—to Atžala, a smuggling society in the 1890s, people fought heart and soul to preserve their country and heritage, all with the possibility of imprisonment or exile to Siberia looming over their heads. Only in 1904 was the ban on Lithuanian literature lifted.

Today, during Banned Books Week, we in the United States commemorate the freedom to read, but we seldom think about what it took to secure this freedom worldwide. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, book smugglers are remembered in Lithuania in different ways, from “The Unknown Book Smuggler” statue in Kaunas to the “Book Smugglers’ Wall” at Vytautas the Great War Museum. Let us thank and remember the great men and women responsible for preserving literature, culture, and heritage all around the world. Through their sacrifice, we gain the incomparable liberty to read whatever we desire.



Jessie Stratton is an intern at Melville House.