Bonfire of the Inanities

Published: September 6, 2023

By Jim Lichtman
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In the late 1400s, the city of Florence, Italy was not only a center of art and culture but was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe rigorously ruled by the Medici family. Building on an underlying discontent, Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar, led a religious crusade preaching that art and literature led to an increase in moral decay.

After the fall of the Medici, Savonarola, with the support of its citizens, instituted moral reforms. Known as the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” the reforms included the burning of art and books that were considered decadent.

Tapping into a similar discontent, many libraries have been facing a backlash against books that are deemed unfit for children by a vocal minority of parents and political figures.

“The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), has released new data documenting book challenges throughout the United States, finding that challenges were nearly double that of 2021, reaching the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago.”

Among the most popular books that have been challenged:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience. 

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students. 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Reasons: banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones.”

Even Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, a story whose central theme is book burning, has been banned at one time or other.

What can we do to curtail censorship?

Go to Pen America, The Freedom to Write.

As for Savonarola—after railing against the Catholic papacy, and an increasing melancholy in Florence, he offered the citizens a test by fire to prove his righteousness. When the good citizens of Florence took him up on his offer, he suddenly changed his mind. Placed on trial and found guilty of inventing prophecies, the Dominican firebrand was fried at the stake.

While I wouldn’t wish such a fate for today’s citizen moralists, I do think they could learn much about tolerance by reading books instead of banning them.

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