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The Book as a Cultural Icon: Cultural Icons

In the article What is the History of Books?, Darnton (1982, 80) described the importance of the book in culture. He states

"it should be possible to arrive at a firmer understanding of what books meant to people. Their use in the taking of oaths, the exchanging of gifts, the awarding of prizes, and the bestowing of legacies would provide clues to their significance within different societies. The iconology of books could indicate the weight of their authority, even for illiterate laborers who sat in church before pictures of the tablets of Moses."

A cultural icon is an object that represents some aspect of culture. In most cases, cultural icons are created at pivotal points in history. Particularly works of satire are most meaningful in a specific place and time. Don Quixote (1605) satirized life at a particular point in time. However the book continues to have meaning hundreds of years after it was originally published. On the other hand, America (2005) by Jon Stewart and Comedy Central's The Daily Show contained references that were "hot" at the time, but just a decade later seem as dated and less important.

The images below show Don Quixote and America.


Cultural Icons

Beyond their role as artifacts, books sometimes come to represent much more than a collection of bound pages. In some cases a particular book comes to represent a cause or movement. For instance Thomas Paine's Common Sense struck at cord during the Revolutionary period. Rather than a single book, groups of books may to reflect a particular time and place. During the suffrage movement, books encouraged women to stand up for their rights. Finally, simply possessing books can make a statement. This was the case during the counter-revolution against the totalitarian regime in China and the civil rights movement in the United States where free access to libraries and books was an issue.

silentIn writing about the impact of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Priscilla Coit Murphy (2007, 1-2) wrote

"At the turn of the millennium, many prophets were predicting the end of 'the book as we know it,' even as many found themselves trying to arrive at a precise definition of 'the book as we know it.' But defining what a book is does not give us the information needed to consider whether books will actually survive. The physical entity 'book' can be defined and redefined to argue the issue either way - that bound, printed books of a certain size and shape are already outmoded, or that books will always exist in some form, just not necessarily as paper and ink.

What a book does, however, can tell us what we use books for, giving us the opportunity to consider, among other things, whether any other medium would perform the same function or fill the same needs better than, or even as well as, a book."

Voltaire (Dictionnaire Philosophie, 1764) has been quoted as saying

"We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard."

What causes a particular book to capture the imagination of society? How does a book remain powerful after decades or centuries? Robert B. Downs (2004, 28) is one of many authors who have tried to determine how and why a book becomes influential. He states

"a legitimate question to ask is whether a specific book had an impact because the period was ripe for it. Would the work have been equally significant in another era, or could it even have been written at any other date? The evidence seems to show that, in most instances, the time produced the book, though it might remain historically meaningful long afterward."

Downs (2004, 31) also wonders how the influence of a book can be measured. He states that

"the secret of their success... was that the times were ready for them. The books carried messages, frequently of highly emotional nature, appealing to millions of people."

The Bible, Quran, and many other religious works were published before the printing press. For these books, mass production wasn't needed to spread the word.

Intellectual Freedom

The right to free expression has always been a concern of governments throughout time. While some societies have embraced intellectual freedom, others have made it a point to restrict it.

Heinrich Heine (17971-1856) was a German poet in the 19th century. In Deutschland: Ein Wintermarchen (1844) he wrote

"There was, besides, full freedom of thought
Enjoyed by the masses of the nation;
Restrictions applied to only a few -
Those who wrote for publication."


Sometimes a book or set of books reflects a society's fears. These works become cultural icons in the sense that they represent something the society rejects.

The image below shows a graph from the American Library Association showing reasons why books were challenged between 1990-2010.

Click the graphic to see a larger view.


Censorship is the act of prohibiting the production, display, or distribution of a work by an institution that finds it objectionable. From religious institutions and social groups to government agencies and other authorities, censors are the individuals and groups responsible for deciding what is unacceptable and actively prohibiting these materials. A wide range of approaches are used to limit the right to publish such as decrees, legislation, taxation, and licensing. Methods such as confiscation and destruction are used to restrict access to information after it has been published. Indirect forms of censorship include the creation of lists of books that are found to be unacceptable.

Gary D. Stark (2012, xix) states that censorship is not just

"a series of discrete acts by specific institutions and external agents to silence a subject, but rather as on ongoing process or system of power relationships between a variety of censorious forces and agents that transcend time and place. Censorship is omnipresent and inescapable."

Some censorship occurs through government surveillance. For instance, Robert Darton (2001) explored literary surveillance in his article Literary surveillance in the British Raj; the contradictions of liberal imperialism.

Obscenity is often used to justify censorship. Obscenity is a communication considered to be indecent by the standards of behavior reflecting by "ordinary people" in a particular society. Because the standard for judgment is based on the norms of a particular community, it is very difficult to define. What may be considered obscene in one geographic area or a particular time period may be considered acceptable in another.

A banned book is a work that has been suppressed or prohibited because the content is considered objectionable. Books may be censored by churches for religious reasons or by governments or agencies for secular reasons such as social or political concerns.

The top challenged book of 2012 was Captain Underpants (shown below) by Dav Pilkey followed by The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (shown below) by Sherman Alexie.


mein kampfAccording to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, at least 46 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been the target of ban attempts.

While some organizations strive to restrict access to information, others have the goal of providing access to books. For instance, the American Library Association adopted the Library Bill of Rights on June 19, 1939. Since then, they have produced a series of resolutions and materials focusing on Intellectual Freedom.

To learn more about the American Library Association and their stance on the rights of readers, browse their Intellectual Freedom resources.

A notorious book is a work that has acquired a reputation. These types of books rile people up and may get banned in some countries. Although normally seen as unfavorable, the book might be viewed by others with honor. While most people view Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler as a notorious book, Nazis saw it as a work of their beloved leader.

Read Ladenson, Elisabeth (2013). Censorship. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Throughout history books and libraries have be subjected to destruction.

Libricide is the systematic, intentional destruction of books and libraries. Often sponsored by a government-run agency or invading force, libricide has been prevalent throughout book history. For instance, in 1992 the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina was destroyed by the Serbs during the siege of Sarajevo.

A biblioclast is a person who destroys books for personal and professional reasons.

Rebecca Knuth (2006, 2-3) in Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction states that

"the modern biblioclasm occurs when books and libraries are perceived by a social group as undermining ideological goals, threatening the orthodoxy of revered doctrine, or representing a despised establishment... biblioclasm is actually a signal that social discord has progressed to a critical point and that the foundations of modern civilization are at risk. Our attention to the circumstances in which the violence occurs is imperative if we seek to revise our response to social outcasts, acknowledge and respond to protests of marginalized groups before they progress to violence, and strengthen the humanist foundations upon which international peace and the modern democratic state depend."

chileA book burning is the intentional destruction of books through the use of fire. During protest or war, books are sometimes burned in mass as a symbol of rebellion or a show of force. While some burnings occur during mob actions in the context of political unrest, they are more often staged events led by social, religious, or political groups with specific agendas. For instance, the Nazi Party in Germany was known for their book burnings.

The image on the right shows the burning of books during the early days of the Chilean military regime in 1973.

According to Bosmajian (2006, 24),

"The public ritual of burning the books has been especially important to book burners. It is not enough to merely destroy books; they must be set afire, usually in a public place. There are, of course, other ways to deny people access to the condemned books; bury the books; rip them up; pulp them; throw them into a body of water; store them in warehouses out of sight of the public; or burn the books in private.

The allure, the magic and power of the public fiery ritual is much more gratifying to the book burner who is interested in displaying the utter destruction of the book and author. The book burning ritual provides an archaic, communal experience as one watches the fire and smoke rising while the book is reduced to ashes. The book burner looks in awe as the powerful, magical, mysterious, fearful words are being completely and wondrously consumed by the more powerful fire. The book burnings are a form of regression, providing a catharsis that other methods of destroying the book would not provide."

For lots of examples, browse New Directions in Book History: Book Destruction from the Medieval to the Contemporary (Smyth & Partington, 2014). It's available as an ebook through IUPUI.

Underground Publications

In some cases, individuals or groups publish and distribute their works unofficially to avoid the censors. Known as clandestine publications or underground literature, these works are often published in times of religious, social, or political unrest. In most cases, these books are self-published or use small, independent printers. The resulting books sometimes become symbols of rebellion or even revolution.

Throughout history, clandestine publications could be found in countries around the world including Aljamiado literature of Spain and Samizdat literature of Soviet dissidents. There are a number of reasons while individuals and groups would pursue this type of publishing. Legal regulations placed on printing have led many authors to seek alternative ways to publish their works.

The best-known examples come from 18th century France. These underground works flourished in the early 18th century and included highly blasphemous works. In addition to the works produced in underground presses in France, smuggling was also a key element of the clandestine literature of France. Books printed in Switzerland and the Netherlands were smuggled into France to avoid dealing with the royal printers. Smuggled works often included philosophical works by philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Erotic literature and pornography have traditionally been produced using underground printers and distributors.

The image below shows the cover of an underground pornographic comic published in the 1930s featuring the character Wimpy.


In recent times, underground presses were found to be a less expensive way for an author to get their works published. These presses also avoided government codes such as the restrictions on comic book contents put in place in the mid-20th century in the United States.


is this tomorrowPropaganda is the organized dissemination of information or misinformation to influence, manipulate, or control public opinion. Often associated with a religious, social, or political agenda, the communications are generally one-sided and reinforce doctrines or practices supported by a particular group or viewpoint. The facts are often "cherry picked" and these loaded messages are intended to elicit an emotional response.

The origins of propaganda can be traced to a committee of cardinal called the congregatio de propaganda fide or Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith during the 17th century. This group was in charge of overseeing the training of Roman Catholic priests.

A wide range of books have been used in propaganda campaigns. For instance, comics like Is This Tomorrow: American Under Communism! (see image on the left) is an example of an anti-communist comic book from 1947 published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society.

Works of propaganda are yet another example of how a book can come to stand for a cause or movement.

Understanding Cultural Icons through Primary Sources

How does a book become a cultural icon? How do we know when a book has power and influence?

Authors like Arlette Farge (1995) in Subversive Words: Public Opinion in Eighteenth-Century France use primary source documents including letters, journals, newspaper articles, speeches, and other documents to better understand the role of suppressed books in the lives of ordinary people in 18th century France.

Farge (1995, 5) states that

"popular opinions are contained in several kinds of sources; chronicles, newspapers, memoirs, police reports and news-sheets supply a goodly number, as do the archives of the Bastille. Every depository of this kind of opinions structures them in their own way and appropriates them to different ends: chroniclers and memorialists deride or worry about them; the police watch them and are ready to pounce; the news-sheets use them to inform; the underground press uses them as ammunition against the opposition; the king ponders them so as better to govern the realm; and so on."


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