You know, the funny thing about banned books — and believe me, the irony hasn’t escaped me — is that they always seem to be the ones that tell us the most about ourselves. They rip open the neatly stitched seams of society, revealing what’s hiding beneath — the good, the bad, and the terribly uncomfortable.
The banning of books, oh, it’s as old as the act of writing itself. It’s like the nervous parent of literature, always peeking over its shoulder, worried about what the kids might get up to when left to their own devices. There’s a certain mordant humor in it, really, when you think about it. Books banned for being too truthful, too raw, too real. Like removing mirrors from a house because we’re afraid of our own reflections.
I’m reminded of a gem of wisdom from Ray Bradbury, himself no stranger to the cold shoulder of censorship with his eerily prescient “Fahrenheit 451.” He once said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” That hits a little too close to home, doesn’t it? And yet, it’s exactly the spirit that gets these books banned — they’re too disruptive, too challenging, too…thought-provoking.
Some literary gatekeepers, with their carefully coiffed sensibilities and prudish paternalism, have often mistaken the act of exploring humanity’s darker corners for endorsing them. George Orwell’s “1984,” a book so full of gloomy totalitarian gloom that it makes a Siberian winter look cozy, was once banned in the USSR for being a tad too on the nose. No surprise there, though, considering it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face about the perils of unchecked government power.
And then there’s “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, which has found itself on the receiving end of the censor’s scissors more times than anyone can count. The unsettling and provocative narrative could easily churn your stomach, and yet, Nabokov’s hypnotic prose and strikingly beautiful language sneak up on you, seducing you into sympathy with the devil. You can’t help but marvel at the way Nabokov walks the literary tightrope, showing us the monstrosity of Humbert Humbert’s actions without ever falling into the trap of glorifying them.
Books are funny creatures, aren’t they? When they’re doing what they do best, they’re disrupting, challenging, poking and prodding at the fabric of our carefully constructed realities. As Salman Rushdie once remarked, after his own dance with censorship and a fatwa no less, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
So, as we stand in the shadow of the Banned Books Week, let’s raise a glass (or a banned book) to those works that dared to challenge, dared to offend, and dared to make us think. After all, it’s through the exploration of the forbidden, the censored, the banned, that we often find the most profound truths about ourselves. Because literature, at its best and most powerful, isn’t meant to merely comfort the disturbed — it’s meant to disturb the comfortable.
Go on, crack open a banned book. Who knows? You just might discover something that shakes you to your core…and that’s what the best reading is all about, isn’t it?
25 of our favorite banned books of all time
- “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain – First published in the United States in 1885, it was almost immediately banned in some libraries due to its portrayal of African Americans and use of offensive language. It continues to face bans and challenges in various school districts today.
- “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee – Since its publication in 1960, it has been frequently challenged for its use of racial slurs and its discussions of racism and sexual assault, especially in U.S. schools.
- “1984” by George Orwell – Published in 1949, it was banned in the USSR until the 1980s for being a critique of totalitarianism, and the book is also banned in North Korea and Cuba for similar reasons. It was also challenged in the U.S. during the 1980s due to its “pro-communist” and “sexually explicit” content.
- “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley – Since its publication in 1932, it’s been challenged and banned in various places for its themes of drugs, sexuality, and suicide. For example, it was temporarily banned in Ireland in 1932, and it faced challenges in American schools during the 1980s and 1990s.
- “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger – This book, published in 1951, has been frequently challenged in U.S. schools due to its profanity, sexual references, and themes of rebellion.
- “Animal Farm” by George Orwell – Published in 1945, it was banned in the USSR until the 1980s for being critical of communism. It has also faced bans and challenges in other countries, such as the UAE in 2002 due to its talking pigs, which were thought to go against Islamic values.
- “Ulysses” by James Joyce – First published in 1922, it was banned in the UK and the U.S. until the 1930s due to its sexual content.
- “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov – Published in 1955, it has been banned or challenged in several countries due to its depiction of a middle-aged man’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl. It was initially banned in France, the UK, and Argentina, among other places.
- “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury – While not widely banned, this 1953 novel about book burning has ironically faced bans and challenges in the U.S. due to its language and supposed promotion of smoking and drinking.
- “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling – Since the first book’s release in 1997, the series has faced numerous bans and challenges in schools around the world, including in the U.S., due to accusations of promoting witchcraft and dark themes.
- “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky – This 1999 novel has been frequently challenged and banned in U.S. schools due to its explicit sexual content, drug use, and discussions of suicide.
- “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini – Published in 2003, it’s been challenged and banned in some U.S. schools due to its discussions of sexual violence and its depiction of Islamic culture.
- “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut – Published in 1969, it’s been frequently challenged and banned in the U.S. for its explicit content, depictions of violence, and anti-religious sentiments.
- “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck – Since its publication in 1937, this book has been regularly challenged and banned in U.S. schools due to its profanity and racial slurs.
- “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker – Published in 1982, it has faced bans and challenges in the U.S. for its explicit sexual content and language.
- “Beloved” by Toni Morrison – This 1987 novel has faced bans and challenges in U.S. schools due to its explicit sexual content and depictions of violence and racism.
- “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck – Banned shortly after its publication in 1939 in several U.S. cities due to its political implications and profanity.
- “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey – Published in 1962, it has been challenged and banned in various U.S. school districts for its explicit sexual content, profanity, and anti-authoritarian sentiments.
- “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou – This 1969 autobiography has been challenged and banned in U.S. schools due to its discussions of rape and other explicit sexual content.
- “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie – Published in 1988, it was banned in many countries, including India, Bangladesh, Sudan, and Iran due to its perceived blasphemy against Islam. The author even faced a fatwa (death sentence) issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.
- “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis – Published in 1991, it was initially withdrawn from sale in Queensland, Australia due to its graphic sexual content and violence, and it has faced restrictions in other countries as well.
- “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James – Published in 2011, this book has been banned in several countries, including the UAE, Malaysia, and Indonesia, for its explicit sexual content.
- “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson – This 1999 young adult novel has been challenged in U.S. schools due to its depiction of rape and sexual content.
- “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi – This autobiographical graphic novel, first published in 2000, has faced bans in countries including Iran for its criticisms of the Iranian government, and has also been challenged in U.S. schools due to its language and graphic violence.
- “Looking for Alaska” by John Green – Published in 2005, this book has been frequently challenged in U.S. schools due to its sexual content and language.
PS. Banning books often spurs more interest and readership, leading to many of these titles becoming bestsellers and classics. Banning books is seen by many as a form of censorship, and there are widespread efforts to combat this in many parts of the world.