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Big Ben Lying down with Banned Books

A piece of paper on the floorBanned and challenged books receive a great deal of attention from librarians, the champions of freedom of speech. Books We Read partnered with several other groups for Banned Books Week in 2020.

In an introduction to banned books, we were tempted to sort them into categories based on the grounds for the ban or challenge: indecency or political subversion, the latter also covered in a post on Samizdat. For the novices in banned books, this term refers to underground publications circulated in secret due to the nature of the political views expressed, i.e., opposing the government. These books and articles had an enormous impact in the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s and 1980s, despite their poor-quality appearance.

I was extremely pleased to discover a few amazing photos on Facebook posted by fellow addiction librarian and fellow master athlete Christine Goodair from the United Kingdom. With her kind permission, we are sharing her images of a unique initiative as illustrations to this post. Random Facebook photos rarely inspire me to look deeper and find out more. This case was an exception, and I don’t regret interrupting my schedule.

Big Ben Banned Books Installation

Big Ben Banned Books Installation. Image credit: Christine Goodair

Pictured in Christine’s Facebook photos, the Big Ben Book Installation pays tribute to books banned for political reasons. Created by socially engaged artist Marta Minujín from Argentina, the installation was the center of the Manchester International Festival in July, 2021. The 42 meter replica of Big Ben was set up in Piccadilly Gardens, lying almost horizontal and covered in 20,000 copies of 160 books.

About the installation. Image credit: Christine Goodair.

Inside the installation. Image credit: Christine Goodair

Visitors not only had the chance to walk around Big Ben Lying Down outside for free around the clock, but were allowed to walk inside the installation and enjoy a new film and soundtrack created by artist Marta Minujín for the the Festival. The titles were selected by a coalition of Manchester-based organizations, including Manchester Metropolitan University Professor Andrew Biswell, director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

During the closing weekend the horizontal Big Ben installment had to be taken apart, but it was also given a second chance. Thousands of readers were invited to contribute to the artwork by simply stopping to take home one of the 20,000 books for free. See promotional video at the end of this post.

In our virtual world, even for ephemeral large-scale installations, there is a chance that a great piece of artwork will continue to live on in people’s minds, hearts, and, in this case, on their bookshelves. What book would I pick from the list? A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, published in 1962.

Now there is an amazing virtual version of the installation available, for posterity and for those of us unable to visit it. Hope you enjoy the show and pause for a second to think of those still living in a place where books are banned, such as my home country, where many books are currently under attack.

A recent initiative called Nyomtass te is! (Print it yourself) in my native Hungary aims to reach diverse communities with no or limited access to news other than government media. Current news from independent sources is summarized in plain language, printed on a half-fold A/4 paper, which is downloaded and distributed by volunteers, thus reviving the Samizdat tradition. More

Read more on why you should read banned books.