Banned books poll

Poll finds huge change in attitude to banned books

A book once described as 'the foulest in English literature' is now seen as progressive by most people who took part in a poll carried out by the National Library of Scotland.

The poll findings have revealed how attitudes have changed enormously over the past few decades on what is acceptable in print.

It found that the D H Lawrence novel 'Lady Chatterley's lover' — also once described as an 'abysm of filth' — raises hardly an eyebrow today.

The poll, conducted as part of the Library's current 'Banned books' exhibition, found that more than eight out of 10 people who took part rate 'Lady Chatterley's lover' as progressive and only a small minority (16%) consider it to be vulgar. The results are being announced during Banned Books Week.

'Lady Chatterley's lover' is one of the most famous banned books of all time. It was originally published in Italy in 1928 and was not openly available in the UK until 1960. That followed the celebrated six-day jury trial at the Old Bailey under the Obscene Publications Act which delivered a not guilty verdict. More than three million copies were sold over the next few months.

The trial proved to be a watershed moment in British life between the power of the state to control access to material considered to be offensive and the freedom of people to choose for themselves.

The story of censorship down the ages is featured in the NLS 'Banned books' exhibition which runs until the end of October. It has proved highly popular, attracting more than 30,000 visitors since it opened at the end of June.

As part of the exhibition, NLS has been running an online poll on its Facebook page asking people for their views on a number of books that have been banned. More than 1,150 votes have been cast.

The books that have most closely divided opinion are 'Mein Kampf' by Adolf Hitler and 'American Psycho' by Brett Easton Ellis. 'Mein Kampf' outlines Hitler's political ideas including his theories on racial purity. Just over half of people who responded to the poll considered it to be political, but 46% judged it as racist. Similarly, just over four out of 10 people (42%) thought 'American Psycho' was disturbing, while 58% said it was challenging. Only 20% thought the 'Kama Sutra' was pornographic, with the majority (80%) seeing it as instructional.

Martyn Wade, National Librarian and Chief Executive of the National Library of Scotland, said: 'It is interesting to see how attitudes change over time — even in our own lifetime — to what is considered acceptable in print. Many books have been burned, censored or challenged by the state and religious authorities, and society itself, because their contents did not conform to the political, religious or moral codes of their day.

'Libraries such as the National Library of Scotland have a vital role in freedom of expression and speech, allowing everyone to explore knowledge and ideas now and into the future. Our exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to learn more about censorship and how it has differed over time and place, with a view to encouraging informed discussion and debate around these issues.'


  • See also: News story on the banned books poll

29 September 2011

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