This week was the American Library Association’s (ALA) yearly Banned Books week (Sep. 24-30), meant to encourage intellectual freedom. Throughout history, certain books have been banned for various reasons—some understandable and some really stupid. However, some of these books are so great I cannot imagine why anyone would ban them. And yet it happens. So, to acknowledge this important week, here is a list of my favorite books that have been banned at one point in history.
Also note, I am only including books that were actively banned by authorized authorities, not merely books which were discouraged by certain groups—such as Harry Potter by many Christian churches.
9. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Released in 1960, this novel has had its share of controversy. It tells the story of racial inequality in Alabama in the 1930s, told from the perspective of a young girl named Scout. It is truly a brilliant book which teaches important lessons about racial prejudice and cruelty.
While no complete government banned this book, it was banned in some US school due to the use of the N word, and racial and sexual themes. However, since the book portrays all these things as negative—racism is portrayed bad as is false rape charges and saying the N word—I personally cannot understand why anyone would ban this truly important book. If I could choose only one book to read in school, it would be this one.
8. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
I was shocked to learn that this 1865 classic children’s fantasy book has been banned multiple times, and sometimes for the weirdest reasons. The book tells the story of Alice, a little girl who drops down a rabbit hole into a strange fantasy world with even stranger creatures. It’s such a fun story. As a child, you think it’s cute and as an adult you became pretty sure Carroll was on some kind of drugs. But to ban the book anywhere seems a bit strange to me.
It was banned in the United States in the 1960s due the allegation that it promoted drug use (as the caterpillar smokes a hookah which alters his mind). In the Hunan Province in China, the book was banned for—wait for it—featuring talking animals, as it is believed that animals should not talk because it puts them on a human level. I mean, that seems like a bit much, as this is a just a fun fantasy story.
7. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternek
Published in 1957, this incredible story tells the life of Yuri Zhivago through the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Russian Civil War following WWI. While it is definitely a serious book, it is exceptionally written novel (though I’ve never seen a movie of it that I liked).
It was banned in Russia all the way up to the 1980s, as it criticized the Russian government—including Stalinism and Collectivization—following the Russian Revolution. In fact, the author received greater retaliation than his book, being thrown out of the Communist Part in Italy, threatened with arrest multiple times, and forced to not accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. In fact, Pasternek died only three years following publication of the book in 1960 of lung cancer. So sad!
6. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
I know what you’re going to say—this is a horrible book, how can it be one of my favorites. But honestly, it’s like reading a very effective warning to what can happen from the beliefs that Hitler encouraged. It was published in 1925 and is an autobiography of Hitler from his childhood to the development of all his twisted beliefs. It is truly a step into a disturbed man’s mind, and yet I think by censoring it we deprive ourselves of understanding how evil is developed.
There are multiple countries in which Mein Kampf is forbidden, including the Netherlands, Russia (as of 2010), and up to recently, Germany (though it is now allowed). Following the end of WWII and Hitler’s death, the book was extremely controversial and published rarely. However, it is now mostly accessible online and in print in the United States.
5. The Bible
Now, there’s a lot of Bibles out there, some with books removed and others with books added. Some are horrible translations, and some are downright filled with ridiculous typos (like the awkward change of “thou shalt not commit adultery” to “thou shalt commit adultery.” ‘Nots’ are important). However, it is also one of the most important historical books with the most reprints and over two thousand years of history.
This book is probably the most banned in all of history, and I will only mention a few times it was banned (if I went through every time, we’d be here all day). Multiple governments (from Ancient Rome to modern China) have banned the book entirely. The Catholic Church has even banned certain copies from being used in Church teaching due to poor translations or sections removed. Pretty much every country in the world has either banned the Bible or considered doing so. And you thought 50 Shades of Grey was controversial—it holds nothing to the Bible.
4. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
This is considered the response to Mein Kampf, one of my previous entries. This book is truly sad, but also moving. It is the diary of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who kept the diary for two years while hiding with her family during WWII. Sadly, she ended up getting caught and sent to a concentration camp, where she died of disease. Years later, her father came back, found her diary, and had it published. It is probably the most important WWII autobiography out there, and I cannot imagine why anyone banned it.
One of the strangest claims was actually that Anne Frank never existed and the diary was written by someone else entirely. In fact, Otto Frank—Anne’s father—was accused of fraud on multiple occasions, even threatened prison time if he tried to press charges against those who started the rumors. What gets me is that multiple schools in the United States have banned this book due to sexually offensive and tragic content, which might depress children. I mean, seriously, it is concerning that a school would want to keep a child in a perfect box and not help them understand complex issues in the world.
3. The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
I absolutely love these medieval, cautionary tales, written in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer. The tales are presented by a group of traveling pilgrims who challenge each other to a story-telling contest. The tales vary and usually revolve around real and fanciful people that give insight to beliefs and behaviors of the times. It is a great book, and since it is told in verse it is a light read (compared to much of what was published during that time). However, it was also banned for some weird reasons.
After its publication the tales were censored throughout Europe due to some of the sexual innuendo and criticism of ruling classes. In more modern times, the book was banned in a Florida high school in 1995 due to sexual content and was banned for many years from being shipped by the U.S. Postal Service. What is funny is a line R. Wolf Baldassarro wrote, “While I can appreciate the concern over some of the subject matter, the indisputable fact is that today’s teens, especially high school students, have already been predisposed to far worse in popular media.” Yes, the books contain some sexual content, but it is so tame to what kids see on TV every day and of so much better, more meaningful quality.
2. Animal Farm by George Orwell
I loved this book in high school and cannot imagine any school banning it. Published in 1945, it is an allegorical story paralleling the lead-up of the takeover of the socialist Soviet Union to a story of a similar take-over with farm animals. It is truly brilliant, and a great read for kids who are bored with history but still should learn how dangerous following blindly after a leader can be.
Despite this, Animal Farm has been banned on a low level and a higher government level. It was banned in the USSR up until the 1980s due to its anti-communist message and was banned in many states in the USA due to the Communist text in the introduction (because that makes sense). It is still banned in mainland China (though a censored version has been released). Personally, if the Unites States does ever ban the book, it would be concerning due to its condemnation of communism.
1. Certain Shakespeare Plays
I love Shakespeare (I know, I’m strange). However, throughout history certain of his plays have been banned in schools and countries. For example, The Tempest was banned in Arizona because of its anti-government ideas (which seem ridiculous). Certain lines have been changed to be tamer, such as the line in Romeo and Juliet, “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” was changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon” by Thomas Bowdler.
The Merchant of Venice was banned in multiple schools in the US due to its villain Shylock (who is a Jew) being portrayed in a bad light, giving a view of Anti-Semitic sentiments. I personally think this criticism is ridiculous, as his daughter Jessica (also a Jew) is presented as a good person. What is so ironic is that, in Isreal, The Merchant of Venice is one of the most best-selling plays. So it clearly doesn’t offend actual Jews.
What are your favorite banned books? Have you read many of the books mentioned on this list? I’m curious if you live outside of the United States, what are some of the books banned in your country? Let me know down in the comments and, as always,
Best wishes on your life filled with adventure,