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Celebrate Banned Books Week

Celebrate Banned Books Week (
September 25–October 2

Jacob Boehme (1575–1624) isn't an author who immediately comes to mind when discussing banned or prohibited books. Known somewhat fondly as "the presumptuous shoemaker," he was a business owner and family man in the town of Gorlitz, Germany.

He was also a Christian mystic. Remembered today for Mysterium Magnum and a handful of other works, his first mystical experience is described in the Schaff Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge:

A ray of sunshine, reflected off of a metal dish in his workshop, seemed to infuse such spiritual light into his soul that the inner mysteries of things were laid open to his sight. He went out into the fields to seek the revelation of God's will in earnest prayer, and found his peace and joy only grow the deeper.

His first work, Aurora oder die Morgenrote im Aufgany, circulated among his friends in manuscript form. While some praised him for his message, the town's pastor, Gregorius Richter, "at once began a fanatical war upon the presumptuous shoemaker, and urged the local magistrate to suppress him, lest the wrath of God should fall upon the town."

The wrath of God did not fall on the town of Gorlitz. But Pastor Richter did make Boehme promise not to write any more books — a reasonably humane outcome, given the political and religious climate. Years passed, but Boehme could not keep from writing down his thoughts regarding religion, and eventually these new writings began to be read by his friends. This time Boehme had to get out of Gorlitz.

The 16th and 17th centuries in Europe were precipitous times, especially for anyone who had ideas about religion that differed from prescribed thought. Boehme was in good company — Luther, Calvin, and King Henry VIII all challenged the authority of the Catholic Church in the 1500s, albeit each for his own reasons. The Thirty Years' War ravaged Germany from the late 1500s into the next century; it was a war of religion mixed with politics.

Unlike other free thinkers of his time, Boehme did not use that most effective instrument of rebellion: the printing press. His works did not appear in print until years after his death; the earliest printing of Aurora listed in Worldcat is dated 1634. (That copy is held by the British Library.) Like Shakespeare, Boehme's writings are available to us now because his friends and followers had his writings typeset and printed.

I don't know if his works ever made the master list of books banned by the Catholic Church — the Index Librorum Prohibitorum — but I'm certain that Boehme's name was well known at the Vatican. Throughout history, books (and sometimes their authors) have been burned. While the American Library Association honors titles that have been challenged during Banned Books Week, remember that those titles are available at libraries and discriminating books stores all 52 weeks of the year. Take a moment, also, to give thanks for the most important invention in the history of ideas — the printing press.

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What is the most banned/burned book today? Titles from the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.

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Kirsten Berg has worked as a used book buyer for Powell's for more than 10 years. She is experienced with technical and general reading material, and enjoys working with out-of-print and rare material the most.

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2 Responses to "Celebrate Banned Books Week"

    Margaret Pick September 22nd, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    What a pleasure to come across the name Jacob Boehme and this interesting synopsis of his work. I discovered him as a college student, rummaging through a used book store, and struggled through his book in German. Even so, it had a profound effect on me. Thank you.

    Aziz Inan September 24th, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Hi Kirsten,

    Very interesting story indeed! I was never aware of the existence of "Banned Books Week!" My ignorance I guess...

    Please keep up the high-quality historical research work you are doing on old books,

    Aziz Inan
    University of Portland

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