How Books Really Get Banned

"Banning books is one thing, killing them is something else."

banned book being burned

Even in our seemingly progressive era, it’s not uncommon to hear about a book being censored from a school or library. Usually there’s initial public outrage, then overwhelming support, and the book is catapulted into further success.

But what about the controversial books that are not banned … just killed before they reach publication?

Despite Banned Books Week (September 27–October 3)—a week-long recognition of the importance of reading banned or censored literature—few are aware of the practice of silencing books. Not only can the publishing process be stopped altogether, but these books are almost impossible to obtain through local channels and lack support from the publisher, never going into reprint.

That’s where the Forbidden Bookshelf comes in. Founded by Mark Crispin Miller, a media studies professor at New York University, the book series aims to finally give long-awaited life to these censored works. Covering some of the most controversial issues in recent history—from organized crime in professional football to America’s use of The Phoenix Program—these books offer alternate and lesser-known accounts that deserve to be part of mainstream culture.

With the release of the newest books in the series, Votescam, Inside Job, and Dallas 63, we talked with Miller about the Forbidden Bookshelf series and the practice of silencing books.

Do you think book banning is as severe as it used to be?

Americans are rightly troubled by the thought of books being censored in this day and age. That goes against the constitutional grain that we pride ourselves on: our free expression and our boundless marketplace of ideas. So when we hear about a book like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or [John Steinbeck’s] Of Mice and Men being banned in some rural school district, we object strenuously and righteously against that kind of authoritarian move.

But I think that kind of outright censorship is the exception rather than the rule. Although it does inconvenience school children, and the teachers forbidden to teach that book … certainly there are some people in that district who are deprived. But I don’t think that kind of censorship poses any real threat that those books will disappear; they’re not going to go out of print. And if anything, such scattered suppression of a particular title is only going to make it that much more alluring to people. You could even argue that kind of censorship actually helps to market those books.

I think that if we really do believe in freedom of expression, in the United States today, we have to pay attention to less explicit forms of suppression, and therefore, much more successful. Because there are countless books out there that actually have been variously killed at birth. Books that have been extinguished so deftly that most people have never heard of them. And very often, those who have heard of them have forgotten them. The purpose of Forbidden Bookshelf is to bring those titles back again.

Our aim is to create a library of titles that Americans need to know about. These are books that don’t just affect someone’s sensibilities because they are too dirty. A lot of the banned books are banned by others who object to the content that offends them. We aren’t dealing with books that are offensive to certain sensibilities, but are dangerous to certain powerful interests.

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How have you seen books banned outside the conventional means?

As a media critic, I’ve continually come across cases of books that have been deliberately killed. I would meet the authors, or I would read stuff they had written about their experience, so I came up with the idea to do a series precisely to republish these kinds of titles.

So a book like The Du Pont Dynasty, is an indispensable book about American history, about the power of capitalism and of a particularly wealthy family, since the beginning of the 19th century. A family and an enterprise whose influence on modern history and the American economy is enormous, and whose story therefore really must be told and is told masterfully in this book. Because of which, the Du Ponts managed to have it killed not once, but twice.

In 1974, they colluded with the publisher, Prentice Hall, to subvert the marketing of the book by printing too few copies to basically not meet the demand. And then 10 years later, Lyle Stuart, a maverick publisher, brought out a second edition of the book. And somehow mysteriously and conveniently, one-third of the print run was damaged. Specifically, missing the very same 30 pages of book that told the story of what happened to the first edition … That damage made it impossible for Lyle Stewart to make a profit.

Votescam is a staggering work of investigative journalism, and also of how that journalism was suppressed. The Collier brothers discovered abundant evidence of election fraud in the 70s. It tells the story of that fraud, and even more frightening, of how they were blocked at every turn, how the story was suppressed throughout the media. And indeed, the book was self-published. I would never have known about it if I wasn’t directly involved in the issue.

The long effort to wipe out books of this kind has been pretty successful. It’s had a chilling effect on journalists and academics of all kinds, who are more ready to tow the line, and shy away from material that will have them labeled as crack pots. For example, Christopher Simpson’s Blowback, the first and the best history of the U.S.’s recruitment of Nazi fascists after WWII, is a forbidden book. It could only find a British publisher. And when it first came out, the review in the New York Times was hostile, and it killed the book, And Douglas Valentine’s book, [The Phoenix Program], the CIA tried to interfere with the completion of the project, and when the book came out, it was destructively reviewed in [prominent outlets], which killed the paperback deal.

It’s important to note that many of the books we’re publishing were killed through the “conspiracy theory” characterization. This happened to me. One of the things that sensitized me to this whole problem was my own experience as an author. I wrote this book, Fooled Again, about the theft of the 2004 election. It’s published by a reputable house, it’s completely solid and makes a powerful case. And I was blacklisted, the book was reviewed almost nowhere. I couldn’t get an interview on NPR, even though I’ve done tons of NPR shows over the years, when I was writing about mass culture. It was really a staggering experience, consigned to the wilderness of nut jobs, because I dared to write about a forbidden topic: election fraud in the United States.

In the United States, we tag writers as “conspiracy theorists” that’s it, that’s the end. That’s what has happened to an alarming number of reporters who looked under the wrong story. The conspiracy theory meme is the most efficient way of suppressing inconvenient material, because you don’t have to resort to violence. Just spread the word that this person is crazy, and they’re finished. This series is a way to take the bull by the horns. It say “Conspiracy theorists, you read them and decide. Or are these just completely solid works of scholarship and journalism?” 

Have you received any pushback in releasing these books now?

I have noticed that we’ve had the same difficulties publicizing the series that the authors themselves experienced when the books came out…It’s not as easy to bring a book back as it is to reassert the rights of Americans to read an erotic classic.

There are books that are still killed or die prematurely, and movies as well. There are not as many books like this as there used to be, but there are books that are buried and quickly forgotten.

How has the state of digital publishing changed banned books?

Digital communications enable a kind of marketing that is to some extent off the radar, ideally it also enables you to connect more directly with those who want to write a book.

Younger people are now more open than their predecessors were with unorthodox and dissonant ideas, and alternative history. Because immersion in cyberspace has made clear to them that the official narrative of the United States is not the only way to hear the story. I’ve noticed as a teacher of forbidden material, that my students are more open to alternative views of history than my students were 10 or 20 years ago. I find that really encouraging. They don’t respond with the same disapproval to works that are perceived as “conspiracy theory.”

Do you think Banned Books Week is effective?

I think [Banned Books Week] is useful if it includes the kinds of books we are talking about. If it’s just a matter of giving us a week of self-congratulations because we are so enlightened that we would never tolerate the banning of books because of its sex scenes and its honesty in dealing with race relations, I don’t think it’s very useful. If it does not include the kinds of books that the framers could have had in mind when they promoted the First Amendment … to the extent that it focuses on erotic classics that are here and there unavailable because of some overreaction by some school board or municipality, then it’s just kind of urban congratulations.

Why do we have a first amendment? So that the government can’t ban works that could enlighten public opinion. The government cannot protect itself and its own power by suppressing works that inform the public. John Adams was not thinking of erotic classics. It’s telling that when people think of famous First Amendment cases, they think of HOWL, or Ulysses, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. They were thinking of the need for the government to be able to empower itself by keeping the people ignorant about what they were doing. Many of our books in the series have to do with power, and pose a threat to those with power.

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So I think those are the books whose precarious situations should concern us a lot more. Rather than the scattered  and temporary suppression of books that are still considered best sellers in many cases, available in any Barnes and Noble in the country, and Amazon, in a shiny new edition. None of these books are at the risk of disappearing, it’s the books we’re bringing back that have disappeared, and most people have never heard of them.

Banning books is one thing, killing them is something else. Most of the titles that figure during Banned Books Week, have been banned, kind of absurdly and ineffectively by various local authorities. The books in our series weren’t banned, they were covertly disappeared. If you want to get rid of a book, you don’t try and get it banned, you arrange to have its promotion aborted or compromised, or dismissed as conspiracy theory by the mainstream media. The books in our series offer the history and provides a pretty good education of the means used to get rid of books that posed a threat.

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