England’s Firsts London’s 65th Outing Features Historic Banned Books

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In the run-up to Banned Book Week, the rare book fair Firsts London will feature censorship from past centuries.

Image: Firsts London

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Banned Books Then and, Sadly, Now
As you may know, Banned Books Week is set for a month from now, September 18 to 24. It’s a presentation sponsored by a coalition of organizations and companies (we’ll list them for you at the end of this article) in light of the severe upturn in aggressive, intimidating, and often angry efforts to suppress free expression and the freedom to publish.

Among the more widely discussed viewpoints in the debate about book bannings—and what they mean when society is being pressured by authoritarian dynamics—Pamela Paul’s essay in The New York Times has been a recent standout, not least because she takes on one of the most insidious effects of these efforts: self-censorship.

Long a topic studied and highlighted by the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA) and its Freedom to Publish program led by Kristenn Einarsson, Paul writes, “Though the publishing industry would never condone book banning, a subtler form of repression is taking place in the literary world, restricting intellectual and artistic expression from behind closed doors, and often defending these restrictions with thoughtful-sounding rationales.

“As many top editors and publishing executives admit off the record, a real strain of self-censorship has emerged that many otherwise liberal-minded editors, agents and authors feel compelled to take part in.”

In England, the rare book fair known as Firsts London has announced that its 65th iteration, dovetailing with Banned Book Week by running September 16 to 18, will have banned books as its theme. The cue here for organizers of the show—the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association—is the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses, infamously censored at times for sexual content.

This year’s rare book fair will be staged at Chelsea’s Saatchi Gallery with the participation of 120 international dealers, 49 of whom are new to the event, including Sam Fogg, a specialist in illuminated manuscripts.

In a prepared statement about the focus of Firsts London this year, the association’s president Pom Harrington is quoted, saying, “Now is an ideal opportunity to celebrate Ulysses and others like it, that were suppressed, banned or led to their authors being ostracized for expressing views that were different from what was acceptable when they first appeared.

Pom Harrington

“One tends to think of forbidden works as an issue of another era, but it’s a subject that is very much of our time. The printed word has always remained a powerful vehicle for enshrining an acceptance of plurality of views. We thought it was a topic that remains very current and worthy of shining a light on.”

Harrington is right that it’s a subject “very much of our time,” as we see forays into libraries and teachers’ curricula and school board meetings being mounted by far-right citizens in the United States and elsewhere. Not for nothing has Penguin Random House worldwide CEO Markus Dohle seeded his PEN America Dohle Book Defense Fund with US$500,000 of his own money.

Unfortunately there’s nothing passé about book bannings, and in some contemporary cases reported, books actually are being burned in events fueled by bigotry, hate, and violence. In February, a Tennessee minister led a burning of Harry Potter books and titles from the Twilight series, as reported by Maya Yang at the Guardian.

And just on Tuesday (August 16), Keller Independent School District near Fort Worth, Texas, directed its teachers and librarians to remove 41 books and review them under new policies adopted by the district last week, as reported by Erin Doherty for Axios.

In this case, first reported by Brian Lopez at the Texas Tribune, the books removed were challenged last year and the titles include a graphic-novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir–and all editions of the Bible.

As Lopez reports, a school district committee had recommended keeping some of the books, including the Morrison book and Anne Frank Diary. “But since that committee met and recommended keeping some challenged books,” he reports, “three new conservative school board members, all recipients of a Christian political action committee’s donations, were elected to the district’s seven-member board of trustees. And according to the school district, all 41 challenged books are now to be reviewed again by campus staff and librarians to see if they meet a new board policy approved last week, according to Bryce Nieman, the Keller ISD spokesperson.”

Several Examples of the Firsts London Show’s Offerings

Among examples of banned books from history at Firsts will be “important works by scientists who, following their groundbreaking discoveries, found themselves opposed by religious or state authorities.”

Sophia Rare Books will exhibit a first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). De revolutionibus (1543) “radically changed people’s perspective on their relationship with the universe, refuting the widely accepted Ptolemaic model that placed the Earth at the center of everything and suggesting the heliocentric astronomical model, which sees the sun at the center of the solar system instead.” Because of its revolutionary theories, considered heretical by the Catholic Church, the book was eventually included in the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) from 1616 to 1758.

Sophia Rare Books’ stand will also feature another great protagonist of the history of science, exhibiting a first edition of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo (1632), accompanied by his letter to the grand duchess of Tuscany (Latin translation, 1641), texts which were both instrumental in Galileo’s Inquisition trial.

On display at York Modern Books is another example of a great scientific discovery–a first edition of Albert Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (1916). Einstein’s work was banned in Nazi Germany, and later Austria, where his books were burned in protest of his theories.

Daniel Crouch Rare Books will exhibit a selection of atlases and travel books that were banned or prohibited from publication, such as Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (1599), from which the whole report of the Voyage to Cadiz was removed.

In fiction with a censored past, a first edition in Russian of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak will be exhibited by bookseller Peter Harrington.

The book, organizers say, “was originally published in Italian in 1957 by publisher Feltrinelli, but remained unpublished in its original language until 1958, when the CIA acquired the proofs from Feltrinelli with the intention to publish the book in Russian and distribute copies to Soviet visitors at the Brussels Universal and International Exposition. Assisted by the Dutch intelligence service, the CIA made a deal with Dutch academic publishing company Mouton, which resulted in this very first Russian publication.”

Ulysses will make an appearance, as well, at the stand of Johnson Rare Books: a unique edition (1933) featuring an original erotic fore-edge painting inspired by the “Circe” episode.


As promised, a list of sponsors and supportive players behind the US-based Banned Books Week comprises: American Booksellers for Free Expression, American Library Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Amnesty International USA, Association of University Presses, Authors Guild, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Freedom to Read Foundation, GLAAD, Index on Censorship, National Book Foundation, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English, PEN America, People For the American Way Foundation, PFLAG, and Project Censored. It is endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Banned Books Week also receives generous support from HarperCollins Publishers and Penguin Random House.

At the Saatchi Gallery in London, January 4. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Purple Images


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About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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