The practice of banning books has been around for as long as books have themselves. We’ve collected a list of the most (in)famous examples!
As reported by the Washington Post, banned books are often spurred by religious or political reasons, and particularly, in the past few years in the United States, the rate of lawmakers, school officials, and parents arguing that books exploring sexuality, race, gender, and religion are detrimental, has increased dramatically.
However, it should be argued that banned books can teach you (or a child, in the cases of school bans) a thing or two about different, and perhaps uncomfortable, perspectives. In doing so, they can also present an opportunity to grow, learn and expand the breadth of one’s empathy and knowledge towards a certain life experience. Below, we revisit some of the most famous banned books in history.
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)
Orwell offers up a nightmarish vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one individual’s attempt to hold on to his individuality. It is believed to have modeled the totalitarian government depicted in the novel on Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In more recent times, Belarus has taken to banning this seminal novel.
Ulysses – James Joyce (1922)
Ulysses is probably one of the most famous books in the world — but at the time of publication, it was banned (& copies were burnt) in the U.S. due to its “perceived sexual lewdness and anti-war sentiments.” The ban resulted in several publicized trials until United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933, where the book was finally allowed to be published in America.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence (1928)
Lady Chatterley’s Lover experienced a fate similar to any novel of the time that explored sexuality with the frankness that D.H. Lawrence did: an obscenity trial. First privately published in 1928 in Italy, the novel was smuggled into countries like Australia, Japan, India, and Canada until it was finally free of the ban, decades after it was first published.
LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1932)
According to the American Library Association, Brave New World is one of the most frequently challenged — the term used to indicate intentions to censor or ban a work — books in the U.S., for alleged “insensitivity, nudity, racism, religious viewpoint, and sexually explicit content.”
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller (1934)
Another victim of the obscenity trial was Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer which was banned in the U.S., Canada, the U.K, Australia, and Finland. Once Grove Press published the book in the United States in 1961, dozens of obscenity lawsuits in half the country were brought against booksellers that sold the novel, and eventually resulted in the (successful, for the former) trial Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein.
TROPIC OF CANCER
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinback (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinback’s enduring tale of American migration, wasn’t always so beloved to readers. While commonly taught in American classes now, the book was banned in the mid-twentieth century from countries like the U.S. to Turkey, for reasons varying from profanity and sexual content, to propaganda.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH
Animal Farm – George Orwell (1945)
George Orwell’s allegorical fable, Animal Farm, criticizes the 1917 Russian Revolution and the establishment of Stalin’s U.S.S.R. So unsurprisingly, the book was banned from being published and circulated throughout most of the Soviet era.
Lolita – Vladimir Nabakov (1955)
At the time of publication, Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita was banned in countries like France, Argentina, New Zealand, England, and South Africa, due to its depiction of a middle-aged man having a sexual relationship with an underage girl.
Naked Lunch – William Burroughs (1959)
With the book being banned in several American cities like LA and Boston, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch — a novel written as a set of vignettes that follows the life of a junkie, William Lee — was censored for its depictions of child murder, drug abuse, sexually explicit acts, and profanity.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (1960)
Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is a celebrated, classic American story that is known widely for its balance of warmth and humour, with the discussion of heavier themes like race relations and systemic inequality. However, due to the book’s use of profanity, exploration of rape, and use of racial slurs, it has become one of the most frequently challenged (and banned) books in American schools.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison (1970)
Toni Morrison is easily one of the most challenged, and oft-subsequently banned, authors in American literature. As per a report by Time, on the American Library Association (ALA)’s annual list of the top 10 most challenged books, The Bluest Eye has appeared several times, in 2006, 2013, 2014, and 2020, having most recently been banned from a high school library in Missouri in 2021.
THE BLUEST EYE
Maus – Art Spiegelman (1980)
Maus has been circling global headlines as one of the most recent examples of censorship, with a school board in Tennessee voting unanimously in favour of removing the graphic novel from its curriculum. It’s been a controversial decision, with many critics of the voting body saying that the text is a critical resource in Holocaust education.
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie (1988)
The controversy around Salman Rushdie’s banned book The Satanic Verses was so intense and so international, that it got its own name: The Rushdie Affair. After the publication of The Satanic Verses, the severe backlash from the global Muslim community was in regards to the novel’s “blasphemous” nature in taking inspiration from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. With a fatwa placed on the author, the book remains banned in most of the Middle East Peninsula, Africa, and South Asia.