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Banned books on reading list at provocative Hornsey exhibition

17:00 21 November 2011

Hornsey Library Banned Book exhibition 10.11.11. From left Sian Segal and Lucy Matteson (principal librarians) and Susan Wright (librarian).

Hornsey Library Banned Book exhibition 10.11.11. From left Sian Segal and Lucy Matteson (principal librarians) and Susan Wright (librarian).

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At first glance George Orwell’s seminal novel Animal Farm and the children’s classic Black Beauty have little in common.

Five banned books

* JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was burnt in many US states for promoting witchcraft.

* Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was banned for sale in the United States because of its sexual content and swearing.

* Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl, the moving story of a girl forced into hiding because of the Holocaust, was banned in Lebanon as it was deemed to portray Jews in too favourable a light.

* Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein has been banned over the past two centuries for being indecent and obscene.

* Vladimir Nabokov’s tale of sexual lust, Lolita, was banned in the UK, France, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa.

The former is a cutting critique of Stalinist Russia, while the latter is a touching family-friendly story which promotes the values of kindness and respect by tracing the often tough life of a horse.

Yet both novels appear in a thought provoking new exhibition about banned books at Hornsey Library in Haringey Park, Crouch End.

Sian Segel, manager of the library, said: “The aim is to get people to think about the whole exercise of banning things, and how important freedom of expression is to society.”

Many of the books on display are well known for the political and moral controversies their publication sparked.

The 18th Century French satirist Voltaire makes an appearance for his book Candide.

So too do Republican writer Ernest Hemmingway and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Nobel prize winning author whose harrowing stories of gulags singled him out as an enemy of the Soviet Union.

Yet others are more surprising.

Black Beauty was banned in apartheid South Africa merely because it had the word “black” in the title, in a case that illustrates that a state’s decision to prohibit literature is usually shaped by its own insecurities.

Leafing through the books on display, what is striking is the sheer talent censors had once wanted to bottle-up and shut away.

DH Lawrence’s famous novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover is one such book.

It only hit England’s shelves after publishers Penguin appeared in the dock at The Old Bailey in 1959 and argued that the novel was of sufficient “redeeming social merit” it might be published. Bookshops sold out within days.

In trying to keep the novel from public consumption, prosecutors had piqued the interest of readers, and had well and truly let the genie out of the bottle.

Even Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned in the Hunan province in China in 1931 for portraying animals on the same level as humans.

Yet today, these books read as a “best of” of world literature.

Librarian Lucy Matheson said: “Twenty years ago something might have been very controversial, but now we may not think anything about picking up a copy.

“This exhibition is not about passing judgement on that, but about having that debate and exploring the issues raised in these books.”

The controversy surrounding banning books is still very much a live one.

Highgate School, the prestigious independent school, sparked controversy last month when it banned the Cherub series of children’s spy books by Robert Muchamore from its junior school in Bishopswood Road, Highgate.

The decision was made following complaints by a handful of parents and a planned visit by the Crouch End based author was also cancelled.

Yet exhibitions like this one offer cautionary tales against censorship.

Ms Matheson said: “Freedom of expression is really important, and that is what a library like this one is all about – pushing the boundaries.”

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