It may come as a surprise to many today that, until quite recently, the Catholic Church published a catalogue or list of books that its adherents were expressly forbidden to read. (If we technically go by traditional Catholic dogma, like most major organized religions, “its adherents” ideally means every single living human being on Earth.) This list was known as the Index Librorum Prohibitorum or the Index of Forbidden or Prohibited Books. Though exemptions for readership were occasionally possible (see APPENDIX, Figure 3), the books listed in the Index were otherwise strictly prohibited for ownership or consumption by the vast majority of baptized Catholics. The punishment for breaking these rules — again, technically according to Catholic dogma — was ipso facto excommunication from the Church. I repeat: Leaving aside the condemnations reserved for the authors of forbidden books, simply by reading so much as a word of any officially forbidden book, any reader of said books was also automatically no longer considered a Catholic in good standing. (As to the practical enforcement of such a metaphysical punishment, your guess is as good as mine.)
As someone raised in the Catholic faith myself, I was for most of my life unaware of the Index’s existence, much less its intensity of purpose. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in my early thirties, that I learned anything about it. The research that I did towards a final paper submitted in the spring of 2015 to my professor, book censorship and intellectual freedom expert Dr. Emily Knox, forms the nucleus of this site.
Suffice it to say, I’ve been hooked ever since.
For full disclosure, I should also specify that I attended Catholic schools for thirteen years, from kindergarten through high school. I received the sacraments of baptism, first communion, and confirmation. In addition to my parochial education, most Sundays during my childhood I also attended mass with my family. I can assure you that during that entire time, the more controversial — dare I say, juicy — elements of Roman Catholic history like the Index, the Inquisition, or the Vatican Secret Archives never came up whatsoever. As far as I can ascertain, the Catholics gave me a well-rounded, modern education. Of course, issues like homosexuality, abortion, and divorce were always no-no’s according to the official line (though they too rarely came up). But at my Jesuit high school we also studied evolution from the same textbook that I would later use in a freshman zoology class at the uber-liberal University of Wisconsin-Madison. In fact, the Jesuits — sort of the Marine Corps of Catholic orders of priesthood — focused heavily on academia as well as the importance of service work and social-justice issues. In addition to weekly or bi-weekly hours volunteering as a tutor and playmate with latch-key kids in Evanston, Illinois and Chicago proper, I spent summers after my junior and senior years helping to build houses in poverty-stricken Harlan County, Kentucky. Along with the several other intellectual and philosophical traditions that I am personally drawn to and inspired by, the lessons and values that I derived from these experiences, and my Jesuit education in general, are still very much a part of my personal ethos and have served me well thus far in attempting to live a decent, mindful existence.
This is all to say that although I no longer consider myself a practicing Catholic, overall I’ve had a net-positive experience with the approximately 2,000-year-old institution that is the Church. I know that many have not, but I cannot pretend to have had anything but an extremely privileged and relatively trauma-free upbringing, my spiritual and academic educations included.
I also realize the need to tread lightly in the territory covered by this site, as an estimated 1 billion-plus individuals worldwide identify as Catholic, many quite devoutly. I expect that my creating this site may be seen as provocative or controversial to some, in and of itself. I want to make it clear, though, that my intention is not to offend nor to denigrate anyone or their beliefs, but to shine more light on a fascinating yet under-reported topic of deep historical significance.
Like the catacombs under Paris, the Index is a kind of grisly bit of antiquity that fascinates us voyeuristic, sanitized moderns. Perhaps it’s the idea of such brutal austerity — whether of the flesh or of the mind — that piques our interest as almost deliciously sinister in contrast to the open-access liberality of much of the world today. Then again, many modern nation-states or other communities widely — and sometimes brutally — enforce intellectual censorship both in print and otherwise, so perhaps some readers may find that this site’s contents hit rather close to home. But for those living with restrictions on their intellectual freedom, know this: Even the mighty and ancient Catholic Church eventually conceded that there was simply too much literature to keep up with; it was ultimately wiser and more productive to focus on the shalts than the shalt-nots. And with the ever-increasing deluge of both “good” and “bad” information that is the internet, contemporary issues of intellectual freedom, access, accuracy, and censorship couldn’t be more germane.
The marketplace of ideas, beliefs, and knowledge systems transmitted through the written word has always been a major engine of societal and political change throughout human history. The attempted control of this information (and access to it) is often just as important as the information itself; as Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan once put it, “The medium is the message.” Furthermore, though the Index has been defunct for over 50 years now, book censorship at large most certainly continues to this day in many other forms. More often than not, book challenges, book bannings, and other types of intellectual censorship take place, in the United States at least, not on any authoritative list or master index but either on a school-by-school (or school district) basis or otherwise at specific municipal public libraries. (For an excellent survey of related contemporary issues, I highly recommend Emily Knox’s Book Banning in 21st Century America. In addition, Robert P. Doyle annually compiles and annotates the Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read series, published by the American Library Association.)
Horror fans, fantasy nerds, and history buffs alike will hopefully find as much to sink their teeth into with the Index as I have. So will, I think, any book lovers in general. But regardless of your interests or leanings, the fascinating thing about it is that it is so extensive, it has pretty much something for everybody. Where else could you find Merlin (yes, the legendary wizard), Casanova, and Charles Darwin’s grandpa Erasmus all just hanging out together in one place? Furthermore, I hope that you not only enjoy reading about each of the books I’ve selected to review, but are also encouraged to go out and read one, some, or even many of them. My primary goal is to have provided enough information and resources for you to go on a (formerly) forbidden-book reading spree.
As it turns out, banned books are regularly some of the best books ever written.