In the 21st century we’re pretty happily wed to the concept of “free speech”, and thinking that printed media should be allowed, regardless of what its content is. Yet, until recently, it was incredibly common for books to be banned the world over â€” for obscenity, political reasons, or the whims of politicians. These are 16 examples that make you wonder “why the hell would they ban that?”
16. Howl. USA
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the poem that defined a movement. A seminal influence on the beat poets, it was raw, long, and dealt frankly with sex and drugs. In 1950s America, that was enough to almost get it banned. When Howl was first published in 1957, 520 copies were seized on entry to the country, and the publisher arrested. The primary offending line was “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy”, and homosexuality was something the censors did not look on lightly. However, due to a massive amount of literary support, and the help of the ACLU, Howl was declared not obscene, and allowed to be sold. It was a landmark trial, and a watershed for the loosening of censorship within America. So no, it wasn’t banned, so it doesn’t really belong on this list. But it was close! And it’s important enough to warrant a place.
15. Lady Chatterly’s Lover. USA, UK, Canada, Japan, India, Australia
Probably one of the most infamous and frequently banned books of all time, Lawrence’s novel attracted attention due to its use of words deemed “unpublishable”, as well as the taboo topic of inter-class sex. Plus, you know, the graphic (for the time) discussions of bonking. It has been published multiple times, in multiple forms, with varying degrees of censorship. It wasn’t until 1960 that an unexpurgated copy was sold in the UK, and that was the basis for an obscenity trial. In Australia, not only was the book banned, but a book about the trial of the banning of the book was banned too. Man, Australia. What is up with you banning sexual stuff? You’re still doing it to this very day!
14. Nineteen Eighty-Four. USSR, almost USA and UK
It’s not really any surprise that Orwell’s famous dystopian novel would be challenged by Soviet Russia. After all, it was a direct attack against the totalitarian state, and the manner in which the state behaved itself. The constant propaganda and revision of history were tools employed to great effect by the Russians (and the Nazis before them). However, it was also almost banned in the USA and UK during the Cuban missile crisis, though sources aren’t particularly clear on why. Maybe it just generally encourages the questioning of leaders far more than people would like during a crisis. The novel wasn’t allowed in Russia until 1990, and even then it was substantially edited.
13. Lolita. France, UK, South Africa, NZ, Argentina
Nabokov’s novel of a middle aged man and his relationship with an adolescent girl is widely considered one of the finest novels of the 20th century. While its subject matter is intentionally disturbing, Nabokov’s skills at writing are beyond question. Renowned for its groundbreaking style, the novel also forced a term into our vocabulary: Lolita. Unsurprisingly, when the book was first published in France in 1955 then the USA in 1958, it caused a stir. Critically adored but publicly reviled, it was swiftly banned in the UK, France, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina. Even though the USA was still banning books at this juncture, Lolita obviously warranted sufficient literary strength that it was allowed. Funny that we call adolescent sexpots “lolitas”, but don’t call dirty old perverts “humberts”.
12. Fanny Hill, the last book banned in USA
Fanny Hill is a pornographic novel written in 1748, while the author was in debtor’s prison. Showing off its pedigree, it’s acknowledged as “the first original English prose pornography, and the first pornography to use the form of the novel.” That’s some old school smut. Given its age, and apparent filth, it’s been banned in just about every country on the planet. The original author was charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects”, which sounds much more fun than it probably was. The book was banned in the USA in 1821, and again in 1963, but the publisher challenged the latter. In a landmark ruling in 1966, the court ruled that it did not meet the Roth standard for obscenity: “the dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest” to the “average person, applying contemporary community standards.” So, while filled with group sex, prostitution, anal, flagellation, and all manner of things dirty, it was considered not obscene. God bless America! 300 year old filth for all!
11. Brave New World. Ireland
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the two pillars of dystopian novels. Both classics in their own right, Brave New World was remarkably non-political. Imagining a world where people were not crushed under the Governmental jackboot, but rather self-medicated with drugs and sex into a happy oblivion. Unsurprisingly, Nineteen Eighty-Four was much more frequently banned and challenged â€” after all, it painted a clear target at political leadership. So who would challenge Brave New World? After all, it’s essentially a mammoth critique of debauchery and eugenics. However, the Republic of Ireland decided to ban the book due to the sexual promiscuity and drug use found within its pages. Seems like someone missed the point of the novel. I get the feeling that happens pretty frequently when people try and ban a book.
10. Candide. USA
Candide is considered one of Voltaire’s finest works, and probably his most famous. Translated into dozens of languages, it’s a scathing attack on optimism, written with Voltaire’s renowned razor-sharp wit. Deeply critical of both church and government, it was immediately attacked by religious and secular leaders. Given that this was written in 1759, it’s hardly surprising. So why was the book seized in America in 1929? Surely, at that point, we were okay with making snide remarks about the jesuits? Apparently customs in Boston disagreed, stopping the book from reaching a Harvard french class on the grounds of it being “obscene”. The official who made the decision to capture the novel said “… But about ‘Candide,’ I’ll tell you. For years we’ve been letting that book get by. There were so many different editions, all sizes and kinds, some illustrated and some plain, that we figured the book must be all right. Then one of us happened to read it. It’s a filthy book …”
9. The Rights of Man. UK, Tsarist Russia
The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine posited that revolution should be permissible when the government doesn’t do their job â€” safeguarding the people, their rights, and their interests. For 1791, I’m sure you can imagine this was a fairly radical idea, especially seeing as it defended the bloody French Revolution. The content was so inflammatory that Paine was tried in absentia in Britain, and convicted seditious libel against the Crown. Sentenced to being hanged, he wisely scarpered across the channel to France. The book was banned not only in England, but also in Tsarist Russia after the Decembrist Revolt. Can’t have the subjects thinking it’s okay to overthrow a monarchy!
8. Metamorphosis. Nazis and Communists
Who would have thought you could get both the Nazis and the Communists to band together against a single writer? Much like hating America, the two diametrically opposed totalitarian regimes both banned Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Why would they both attack a novella about a man turning into a giant cockroach, a classic tale of nihilism and despair? The Communists banned the novella for being decadent and despairing, while the Nazis obviously hated the lack of blond-haired, blue-eyed supermen running around destroying other races. Jeez, you can’t just go around banning any book because it’s depressing. How else will readers know that their lives aren’t actually a giant pit of despair? Oh wait, they live in the USSR. Huh, so much for that.
7. The God of Small Thinks. India
This 1996 novel remains the sole work by Arundhati Roy, and managed to win the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997. So why would this novel about caste, love and religion be banned in its native India? Because of sex scenes occurring between castes and religions. Apparently having people fuck outside their social and religious circles is equivalent to “corrupting public morals”. The same issues that were raised by Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Yet this wasn’t even 15 years ago. Luckily, it was only banned for around a year, before the author successfully defended it in court, and the injunction was lifted. That said, it’s rather disturbing to see a valuable work of literature being banned over social issues within recent memory.
6. Grapes of Wrath. USA
Wait, Grapes of Wrath? The seminal piece of American fiction, perfectly crafted by Steinbeck? Source of a million High School projects throughout the years? Winner of the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes? That Grapes of Wrath? Yup, banned, and in the United States, no less. Viewed by many as socialist for daring to question the actions of capitalist farmers and supporting unions, a number of states blacklisted the book. Most noticeably California â€” the location for much of the story â€” because they felt the book made the residents of their state look bad. Funnily, Steinbeck intentionally underplayed the horrible conditions in the state in order to allow the story flow more freely.
5. The Da Vinci Code. Lebanon
Wait, Lebanon has a ban on shitty books? Damn, that sounds like my kinda place. Wait, wait, no. Damnit, they banned the Da Vinci Code for being offensive to Christians. Being wildly inaccurate about Catholics is enough to get something banned? Maybe we can finally do away with Chick Tracts then. Apparently the Catholic Church in Lebanon complained because Mary Magdalene got pregnant with Jesus’ child, and that was enough for every copy to get pulled from the shelves â€” French, English and Arabic. Said one priest: “Christianity is not about forgiveness to the point of insulting Jesus Christ.” Really? I thought Christianity was about complete forgiveness. Guess I’m wrong.
4. Ulysses. UK, USA, Australia
Ulysses is considered one of, if not the, greatest book in the English language. Densely packed prose written in the stream-of-consciousness style makes for a challenging, but rewarding, read. It’s one of the most heavily analyzed books in the English language, with layers on layers of meaning. Hell, Joyce even said he “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” So, why was it banned? Sex and masturbation. James Joyce was a filthy bastard, there’s no doubt about that â€” just look at his letters to Nora Barnacle. However, one episode in the book in particular â€” of a woman exposing herself to the main character â€” was the main cause of complaint. In the USA the obscenity charges were overruled in the landmark United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, which decided that because the book was not pornographic, it could not be obscene.
3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. USA, Tsarist Russia
It’s easy to forget how strong of an influence a single book can have. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is considered critical in the mammoth upswing in popularity of the abolitionist movement in the United States. When President Lincoln met the author, he famously said “so this is the little lady who made this big war.” Unsurprisingly, the anti-slavery sentiment didn’t exactly go over well in the southern half of the country, leading it to be banned for professing that it’s a bad thing to own another human being as property. Wealthy plantation owners weren’t the only ones who didn’t like it, the novel was also banned under Nicholas I in Russia, for “undermining religious ideals.”
2. Diary of Anne Frank. Lebanon
Goddamnit, Lebanon! What the fuck? How can you ban the Diary of Anne Frank? It’s a story of a girl trying to survive horrible oppression! It puts a human face on the greatest tragedy of 20th century! It’s sweet, horrifying, and thoughtful. Every school child at least has a passing familiarity with what it is. Why in the hell would Lebanon ban it? For “portray[ing] Jews, Israel or Zionism favorably”. Stay classy, Lebanon.
1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. China
What? Alice in Wonderland? Trippy, mathematics filled Alice in Wonderland? The Alice in Wonderland that has no sex, violence, or anything else to offended by (apart from a bit of pipe smoking). What in the world would convince China to ban this classic children’s story? In the Hunan province in 1931 it was blacklisted by the Governor because “animals should not use human language” and that it was “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.” Talking hares are apparently enough to cause a novel to be pulled of the shelves. Nice one China, taking an entirely harmless novel and throwing it away for something completely minor. I’m sure no Chinese folk tales have talking animal, nope, none at all!