We’ve all heard that song about how in “olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking”. The song, of course, reminds us that nowadays, “anything goes”. This, thankfully, isn’t quite true but since Cole Porter lyricized the sentiment in 1934 our capacity to be shocked has dwindled dramatically. We have become immune to violence, are unshaken by promiscuity, shrug off infidelity. Yet however lax we may believe contemporary morals to be, however habituated we may have become to news reports of criminal depravity, there is one arena that remains capable of engendering reactions so passionate and blatant that it may well have dominion over ‘the shocking’ – the written word. The burning of books is a historically favored pastime of tyrants, and for good reason. Words are virulent, they spread. Words cultivate ideas and revolutions. Most importantly, with words come questions. And all of the above are poison to suppression. It is no surprise then, that no matter how evolved society has become, we always find the time to be scandalized by literature.
In the Western world, freedom of speech has become one of our most protected rights and so the banning of a book is a less frequent occurrence than it was a few decades ago. But even here one doesn’t have to look far to find schools of a certain persuasion wherein the study of some of the most important literature of our time is anathema. And across the divide? Our Eastern and Middle Eastern friends continue to suppress literature considered damaging to particular regimes. So here they are, ten of the most shocking books ever written.
10. Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler) Banned in Russia and Austria
It’s a fairly universal acknowledgement that the Holocaust was, and remains, a truly shocking reality. So the association of Hitler’s name with this book is hard to abandon. And yes, the text undoubtedly professes some of the political ideals which later morphed into full on genocidal xenophobia. But in reality, this particular text owns a place on the list of shocking literature more because of its author than its content which is early National Socialism, and although extreme, is not really indicative of what Hitler and the Nazi Party would become. What is perhaps more shocking, and tragically ironic, is the literature which did in fact inform the evolution of the Nazi Party. In many cases, it was Jewish academics like Nietzche who were the unwitting source for much of the nationalist underscore of Nazi ideology.
9. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Caroll) Banned in Hunan, China
From the point of view of a modern audience, and perhaps all the more so in light of the film adaptation, the problematic themes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might seem obvious – something to do with the not-so-euphemistic rabbit hole and going down it. But in fact, the powers that be in the Hunan region of China took issue with the novel for something that seems altogether more innocuous – animals. Well, not animals in themselves, but the personification of animals. The concern, allegedly, arose from the confusion that would be created in young people as to how to differentiate, ethically, between humans and animals. If there’s any merit in that logic, one wonders if banning the novel in, oh say…Beijing, might have helped some with said ethical confusion.
8. The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer) Banned in the USA
Ok so this was last banned in 1873, right before it did a 180 and became compulsory scholastic content. But way back when, this was the height of scandal. Ostensibly a collection of stories told by a group of medieval folk on religious pilgrimage, the tales are full of couched references to sexual deviance, adultery, and blasphemy. In actuality, the most outrageous scene is probably in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, when a young lady pokes her posterior out of a window for her suitor to kiss, under cover of darkness. And while this might seem a fairly conservative little bit of silliness, for an American audience in 1873, Chaucer was Lars Von Trier, and The Canterbury Tales was Nymphomaniac. Just to contextualize.
7. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) Banned in Lebanon
The cult of the banned book confers something of an honor on those works of literature considered so powerful they might topple a nation and must, therefore, be silenced. Reading those novels, the mighty polemic of the censored author, is likewise a matter of pride. It marks one out as educated, cultured…. But every once in a while someone sneaks under the radar of literary taste to claim a place of dubious merit amongst the great banned literature of our time. These are the nouveau riches of the Literary Hamptons. And Dan Brown is one of them. His Da Vinci Code has earned a place on the list thanks to a dictat issued by the usually imperturbable Catholic Church, decreeing the contents offensive to Catholicism. So no more Dan Brown. Which only proves that sometimes, the reasoning is wrong but the conclusion…well.
6. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov) Banned in the UK, Argentina, France, South Africa, and Canada
When this novel was published in 1955, the overtones of pedophilia left many readers unnerved. Indeed, the novel continues to have that effect. It’s just now we’re given the opportunity to feel disgusted, while the original publication was shielded from the undiscerning eyes of readers worldwide. In comparison to some others on the list, the reasoning behind the suppression of this text may be more comprehensible. Perhaps this is because the thematic ‘shocks’ of the tale retain a cultural and societal resonance for modern readers, one that is absent from, for example, the religious concerns motivating the censorship of The Canterbury Tales. Maybe the more interesting point here is that the film adaptations of this novel have assigned notoriety to the ‘Lolita’ aphorism. The reference appears regularly in commentary on tween culture. When something becomes so subsumed into the language of the Zeitgeist, is it inevitable that it will lose its shock value?
5. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) Banned in South Africa
The Frankenstein premise is something akin to the recent film Her, and hundreds of dystopian models before it. The fear that science will become so potent, it will grow beyond the control of humans, is one that continues to haunt literature and film alike. Of course, the more obviously shocking issue on which to hang our scandalized hats is the god-complex with which the novel deals. It is, perhaps, surprising then that this novel was banned only in South Africa, and on grounds of obscenity rather than of religion. Nevertheless, Frankenstein joins others on this list. This might confound the modern reader but at one time, it shocked nearly a whole continent.
4. Nineteen-Eighty-Four (George Orwell) Banned in the Soviet Union
Orwell was actually controversial enough to have had two of his novels banned. Indeed, Animal Farm found it virtually impossible to find a publisher for its first edition. This latter novel was…less than subtle in its furious declamation of the Soviet regime, so the anxiety it clearly aroused in the leadership of the USSR is hardly surprising. Nineteen-Eighty-Four is further reaching in its scope, and has become emblematic of the ‘Big Brother’, future-fear movement in general. But Stalin demonstrated either the extent of his ego, or his proficiency as a literary critic when he identified himself as the criticized target of this novel. As a consequence, it was banned in the USSR until as recently as 1990.
3. Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller) Banned in the USA and South Africa
If you are one of those people (…everyone) who has ever watch a little bit of porn, then you basically have Henry Miller to thank for the freedom to do so. When Tropic of Cancer was first published it was immediately banned in the USA, but almost as immediately became ridiculously popular. Smuggled copies of the novel made their way into America despite US customs efforts. Outrage ensued at the attempted censorship, which lead to a pseudo-political revolution in which Gove Press went against the State in obscenity trials. And in 1964, obscenity won.
2. White Niggers of America (Pierre Vallieres) Banned in Canada
Yikes. Actually even listing this one is pushing the boundaries of our modern censorship culture. So, first up is a bit of an explanation. Valliers, the long suffering author of this book, is part of a sub-political movement that believes the French of French Canada were, and continue to be, persecuted as a minority group. We won’t get into the rights and wrongs of this here but it’s worth explaining that he uses the N-word here to draw attention to what he thinks is a situation comparable to that of the African American slaves in the Southern States of America. Which almost sounds ridiculous. Except that the text has rattled enough cages to get itself banned. Hm. Curious.
1. The Satanic Verses (Salman Rushdie) Banned in Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand.
This one is the hands-down winner of the Infamously Banned Books competition. The novel tells the tale of two Indian men who, after surviving a plane crash by spontaneously developing the ability to fly, become earthly incarnations of God and Satan. Of course Rushdie is just a monolith of intellect, so there’s a lot more to it but the one thing a whole lot of people took away from it was its critique of Islam. It was declared blasphemous and Iran’s Supreme Leader, in 1989, declared a fatwa on Rusdhie’s life. What this meant was that half the extreme Islamic world were officially sent on the hunt for Rushdie, to kill him for crimes against the religion. Strangely enough, it was U2’s Bono who saved the day though and hid Rusdhie for a while. His translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, wasn’t so lucky and was assassinated in 1991.