Ghost libraries and burning books - is this the future our censors have in mind?
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Ghost libraries and burning books - is this the future our censors have in mind?

Alexis Wright contemplates a world without books in this extract from an upcoming lecture on censorship.

Let's say Fahrenheit 451 has been achieved. Let's imagine we have reached the stage where all books are believed to be so treacherous to humanity because of the slightest possibility of dangerous ideas being contained in them – such as climate change and global warming scientific research, or too much compassion for others, and the possibility of sharpening the moral imagination. Governments might say – but not to you or me – that a free mind not tied to government must be, and therefore is, completely dangerous and should be feared by the general population, because free minds cause madness for governments.

In this scenario of imagining a world without books, the State Library of Victoria, a national treasure, is doomed to become a tomb. It will be a forbidden place of abandoned books where through the damp winters of time, spiders scramble over the pages of fallen books coated in mildew and scurry up through the great cobwebbed world gleaming under shafts of light that shine through the grime-covered glass of the Dome Reading Room. This place is a darkened ghost library now, kept under tight security around the clock. There are strict controls about who can go inside this building to fight their way through the webs of censorship about what must never be removed from its shelves, and who can read a book from here.

Empty boxes from manuscripts burned by Islamist rebels in Timbuktu. Abdel Kader Haidara organized the evacuation of about 300,000 manuscripts before the fighters invaded.

Empty boxes from manuscripts burned by Islamist rebels in Timbuktu. Abdel Kader Haidara organized the evacuation of about 300,000 manuscripts before the fighters invaded.Credit:MARCO DI LAURO

This future gets worse. The governments that created these controls with their politicians – some of whom look similar to the ones we have now – are joyous in finally achieving what the Nobel Laureate in Literature Toni Morrison described of censoring in Burn This Book, as the starving, regulating, and annihilation of writers who are unsettling, calling into question, taking another, deeper look. Those who disturb the social oppression functioning like a coma on the population. To sweep clean all but the "safe", all but state-approved art.

Our political masters have succeeded in convincing our families to fear all books and stories. You will never see literary works on the curriculum of any place of learning in the country because of the fear of creating irrationality in the population, because the greatest need to run any country will be by controlling thought. In the web of censorship laws that will be established, almost any form of storytelling will not comply with the list of safe stories to tell. By enforcing tighter laws, it will become even easier to enforce controls as more people believe that the ills of the world will only be defeated by creating an egalitarian world of like-mindedness, by entirely removing the right for anyone to tell a story. How? Simple. By punishing the storytellers. Our stories already struggle to be written through reduced funding resources available to the development and publication of literature. Grants to literature suffer the first budget cuts of government, even though the resources in this field are already minuscule.

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Alexis Wright will deliver this year's Stephen Murray-Smith memorial lecture at the State Library of Victoria on December 3.

Alexis Wright will deliver this year's Stephen Murray-Smith memorial lecture at the State Library of Victoria on December 3.Credit:Vincent L Long (m. 0412 873 083)

The only stories that will be told in our more blatantly censored world, will be those that the media giants want told to control governments, to enforce their own ideas – such as occurred in enforcing the NT Intervention of 2007. It's a Don Quixote world of frenzied but well-meaning and narrow-thinking public servants throwing dangerous books on the bonfire on the advice of whatever holy dictum exists above the rights of others. They relish the job, and are crazed in a task fired by their deep belief that the writers and storytellers of the world have some kind of illness for trying to cure humanity with stories, and just to be on the safe side for humanity's sake, they have thrown the whole lot – all the books that ever existed – down from the windows of libraries to burn on top of the official book-burning bonfires to save people from ever having a thought.

There is no guarantee that the safety of books is beyond risk, beyond censorship and destruction in future times. Even the thought feels blasphemous and threatening. I wonder if the librarian of Timbuktu, Abdel Kader Haidara, had such thoughts while he journeyed across the baking Sahara Desert in the 1980s as a reluctant young bureaucrat, to track down and salvage tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity? Did he think that anyone would want to destroy this rich heritage he had worked so hard to retrieve and had returned to his city, in a library – the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library – that had been built in Timbuktu to house this treasure for all of mankind? How could such a thing be possible? Had he ever thought that in 2012, he would be the one in charge of a highly dangerous exercise of smuggling this library of almost 400,000 ancient manuscripts out of the city, first to safe houses around the city by donkeys, and then on hazardous journeys by boats, or motor vehicles across 600 miles of desert to safety? All not so long ago.

Perhaps it pays to be ever-vigilant about the stories of cultural heritage in case we too, have to one day use some of our hardened 5 million feral donkeys to move our national libraries by donkey train across thousands of miles of outback roads along the Birdsville Track, to be hidden in a safe house in Bedourie, or by submerging libraries in water holes unmarked on any map, and guarded by crocodiles up north.

If the stories that live in all of us were accused of being too reckless for the nation, too dangerous for the country's ears with assimilatory ideals, or of threatening a narrow view of the world, what would we do? I hope that we would cultivate our memory by continually whispering stories in our mind as Aboriginal people continually do, and be brave, just as our people took great risks to keep the spiritual law stories strong in secret gatherings held in the middle of the night outside missions and reserves where they had been institutionalised under state laws, and were punished for practising Aboriginal law. And just as our people do today, by continually teaching children the important stories that cultivate memory and cultural imagination, and helping our children not to rely on soundbites, Twitter or Facebook, or in believing that the internet is the source of all knowledge.

This is an edited extract from Alexis Wright's 2018 Stephen Murray-Smith memorial lecture, to be delivered at the State Library of Victoria, Village Roadshow Theatrette on December 3.

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