Banned books have existed pretty much ever since books themselves existed – people have a lot of opinions and beliefs, and conflict can arise when the opinions and beliefs of readers clash with what an author has presented in a text. Some books are banned basically from the outset and struggle to get published initially, while other books get banned a little further down the line.
There are also different levels of severity regarding banned books. At the highest level, books may be entirely prohibited by a nation’s government from being sold or read (whether it’s because of political reasons, religious reasons, etc.), and reading these forbidden texts may even be punishable by law. On a smaller scale, citizens can call for a book to be banned at a more local level – the most common example of this is in community libraries or schools, where individuals request that a book be banned within that particular space.
Why would a book be banned? There are many different causes that may relegate a book to that red list. One of the most common is charges of obscenity, wherein books are banned or seized because some authority states they contain obscene and objectionable material about drugs, sexuality, race, etc. Governments have also banned books wherein authors may be critiquing the regime playing out within their nation in some way, or shedding a negative light on their nation. Additionally, religious institutions may ban books for members who subscribe to their faith, presenting them as texts that should not be read if one wants to keep a spiritual life in their realm.
In a typical ‘want what you can’t have’ fashion, the classification of 'banned' generally has a positive effect on a book’s readership, as individuals seek it out specifically because they have been told they shouldn’t. The following list contains ten classic works of literature that have been banned at some point in their literary lives.
10 Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-Five
Within the pages of Slaughterhouse-Five itself, Vonnegut explores what the purpose of a novel is, and it has been used as a way to explore literature and what it can achieve within the classroom. However, not everyone can agree on the book’s value, as it has been either banned or challenged on eighteen separate occasions. The causes have been varied, with some saying it’s depraved or immoral, obscene, anti-Christian, anti-American, anti-Semitic, and the list goes on and on.
It was removed from Oakland County, Michigan public schools in 1972, set aflame by the Drake Public School Board in North Dakota in 1973, and removed from the libraries of Levittown, New York’s Island Trees school district, just to name a few. However, raising a fuss about Vonnegut’s most famous novel isn’t something relegated to the past, as it’s still ranked within the top 30 of the American Library Association’s list of banned or challenged classics.
9 J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye was reclusive author J.D. Salinger’s only published novel, and it continues to have an enormous fan base of all ages. The irreverent coming of age tale, however, was not uniformly accepted, as many found certain aspects of the text objectionable.
It’s been censored in several countries and the forces banning it have cited a variety of reasons, from vulgar language to sexuality to content of a morally questionable nature in general. They seemed to think it wasn’t something children or teenagers (or anyone) should be reading, which, thanks to the text’s popularity in school classrooms, sparked a lot of individuals to challenge Salinger's work.
Writer Pamela Hunt Steinle draws a connection between censorship and the classroom in the novel’s history in her text In Cold Fear, as she writes that 30 years after its publication date, Catcher in the Rye “had the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the country and the second most frequently taught novel in the public schools.”
The American Library Association identifies the novel as a frequent target of censors to this day, despite it continuing to thrive on the bookshelves of readers across the world.
8 John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath
One of Steinbeck’s most well-known novels, The Grapes of Wrath won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Price, and the New York Times cites it as the best-seller of 1939 with nearly 500,000 copies published.
Though it is nearly uniformly agreed that Steinbeck’s text is a literary classic, that distinction hasn’t stopped many from becoming upset with both the novel and the author himself for how he portrayed the poor tenant farmers the novel focused on. Steinbeck has stated in interviews that he specifically wanted to villainize the forces responsible for The Great Depression, and to forcefully confront readers with the unpleasantness of the situation. He was consequently very popular among working class readers, but many other readers felt he deliberately exaggerated how bad things were in order to support his political message, and Steinbeck received criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.
It has been banned in Ireland (in 1953, several years after the first publication), and was one of the texts in a 1973 case where Turkish book publishers were called to trial for selling books meant to be censored. Grapes of Wrath has been banned on the community level within schools and libraries throughout countless counties and towns, and even burned in some (often publicly, as a visible sign of displeasure with the novel’s content).
7 Aldous Huxley – Brave New World
While it’s unsurprising that Huxley’s book was banned when it was first released in the early 20th century, people might be surprised to find out that it’s still one of the most challenged books to this day – as recently as 2011, the American Library Association listed Huxley’s novel in third place on their list of books that Americans tried the most to ban. Perhaps they didn’t see the irony in trying to ban a book which narrates the story of a world wherein books are banned.
6 Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer
Many of Miller’s novels are almost synonymous with lasciviousness and sexually explicit content, and Tropic of Cancer is certainly no different. The book, which explores the creative scene in 1930s Paris, was first published in Paris by Obelisk Press, a European publisher that was notorious for taking on controversial titles.
Before the United States Supreme Court ruling in 1961, the only way American readers could get their hands on a copy of Miller’s book was if they found a copy that had been smuggled into the U.S. The book was eventually published by Grove Press, and though it sold extremely well, about 75% of the titles sold were eventually returned to the publisher in a riotous uproar regarding the obscene content. Things eventually smoothed out, but Tropic of Cancer still contains an air of controversy due to its censorious history.
5 Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird won rave reviews and earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It is constantly read, re-read, and reprinted (it’s never been out of print in the over fifty years since its publication), and is a staple in high school classrooms.
However, the book does deal with a lot of serious topics such as rape and racial inequality in the South – thus, censorship tried to step in. Like many of the classics gracing this list, Lee’s book is still one of the most challenged texts to this day according to the American Library Association, despite having been published over half a century ago.
4 Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita
The first publication of Nabokov’s classic novel was by a French pornographic press – it’s no surprise that the censors quickly stepped in and attempted to ban the book. Countless officials banned the book for obscenity due to its focus on the pedophile Humbert Humbert and his obsession with young Dolores Haze, including authorities in France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Nabokov himself disagreed with the continual reading of the book as a sex-obsessed tome and nearly burned the manuscript in anger.
3 William Golding – Lord of the Flies
Golding’s debut novel tracks British schoolboys who, after their plane crashes on an island, begin to revert to primal, aggressive behavior. While not initially a huge success, it eventually grew in popularity and became a staple in classrooms and on ‘must read’ lists worldwide.
While there is a bit of violence, the book is primarily challenged because of its unsettling exploration of human nature; Golding creates a world where every boy looks out for his own best interests rather than the group's well-being, where ordered and mannered civilization turns into chaos. It has been challenged in school districts in Texas, South Dakota, North Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, Florida, and Ontario… to name a few.
2 Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Twain’s coming of age story has sparked a lot of controversy for over a century. Shortly after Huckleberry Finn's publication in 1884, the Concord Public Library banned the book because of its language – Twain’s use of the vernacular was not looked upon favorably. The language was far grittier than many at the time were used to, and Twain caused a bit of an uproar.
Recent censors have been most focused on the frequent use of the objectionable n-word, denouncing the whole book as obscene because of Twain’s language without stopping to consider the time period within which the text was written, and the language that was common then.
Though it is one of the most challenged books to this day, it is also one of the most read classics.
1 James Joyce – Ulysses
Joyce’s ground-breaking Ulysses was a breath of fresh air in the literary marketplace at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite having achieved the status of a classic since its initial publication, the book was surrounded by controversy and censorship from the very beginning.
Censors focused predominantly on the explicit sexual content of Joyce’s text and Ulysses was put on trial in 1921 for obscenity. In the decade after its publication, the book was frequently banned, and in many countries (Ireland, Canada, England), individuals went as far as to burn copies of the book.
The censorship came to a peak in 1933, when the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) filed United States v. One Book called Ulysses. The result? The judge ruled that the book was art and not pornography, as many were claiming due to the sexual content. It remains at number six on the American Library Association’s list of 100 most challenged classics.