10 most controversial banned books
From being blasphemous to sexually explicit, literature can cause quite a stir
1. LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER, D.H. LAWRENCE
Arguably the epitome of novels banned in the UK, this 1928 novel caused a scandal because it depicted an adulterous love affair between an upper class woman and her gardener. Featuring highly descriptive sex scenes and an awakening of female sexuality, it was banned for obscenity until 1960. As soon as the ban was lifted, the book sold out, and this became a hallmark moment of the Swinging Sixties.
2. LOLITA, VLADIMIR NABOKOV
France, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Britain
Like many of the books on this list, Lolita was banned because it was seen as ‘sexually obscene’. The now-classic novel is told from the view of a middle-aged man, who lusts after his 12-year-old stepdaughter. France was the first country to impose a ban in 1958, and other countries soon followed suit, with some officials calling it “sheer pornography”. Today, the book is freely published, and is viewed as one of the 20th century’s most innovative novels.
3. THE SATANIC VERSES, SALMAN RUSHDIE
Banned in: India, Pakistan, Iran and many more
This story of a Bollywood star and his friend, who have strange experiences after their plane is hijacked, provoked a lot of controversy among the Islamic community. Some saw it as highly blasphemous, as it depicted the Prophet Muhammad in an unconventional manner. The climax came when Ayatollah Khomeini placed a fatwā on the author, Salman Rushdie, asking for devoted Muslims to execute him. Owing to violent protests and political instability, the book was banned in many Muslim-majority countries, and the fatwā is still valid. Rushdie receives a card on Valentine’s Day each year to remind him.
5. WILD SWANS, JUNG CHANG
Books of a political nature are always likely to be incendiary, but none more so than Jung Chang’s 1991 bestseller, an autobiographical story of three generations of Chinese women. It takes the reader on a moving journey from the Imperial age, through the Cultural Revolution and up to the present day. However, it also revealed some of the more brutal aspects of Chairman Mao’s regime, even though her family originally supported the Communists. That is, until they were tortured. All of Jung Chang’s books are banned in China.
5. CATCHER IN THE RYE, J.D. SALINGER
A classic 1950s novel, symbolizing teenage angst and rebellion, struck fear into the hearts of American families. The protagonist, a teenage runaway leading a disillusioned life in New York, peppers his speech with swearwords, slang, and allegedly blasphemy. Upon learning that their children were being exposed to such a bad influence, parents across the US succeeded in prohibiting it from classrooms and libraries for decades. That’s not all, however – John Lennon’s assassin claimed that the book inspired his actions, and that he deeply related to the troubled teen.
6. BLACK BEAUTY, ANNA SEWELL
What could possibly be controversial about a touching, heartwarming tale narrated by an elderly horse? As it turns out, touchy censors in apartheid-era South Africa took one look at the title, and believed it was about a black woman, not an ailing stallion. Clearly, they’d never actually opened the book, but it was briefly banned regardless.
7. THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER, GOETHE
Germany, Denmark, Italy
Entertainment is possibly the most common cause of ‘moral panic’, and 18th century readers were no less susceptible. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a semi-autobiographical lament detailing love triangles and unrequited feelings, culminating with the main character’s suicide, was banned in some European countries. At a time when suicide was considered a heinous sin, a perceived rise in people taking their own lives in a fashion inspired by the romantic Werther alarmed governments, and it was forbidden for 50 years. Nowadays, the term “Werther effect” is used to describe a chain of similarly performed suicides.
8. DR. ZHIVAGO, BORIS PASTERNAK
Recognised now as a masterpiece of Russian literature, and deeply critical of the October Revolution, the 1950s fiction Dr. Zhivago was (perhaps unsurprisingly) banned in the USSR. Its journey to publication is a fascinating one – Italian publisher Feltrinelli came across the manuscript and was instantly struck. He personally smuggled it out of the USSR, taking it to Milan, where it was published in 1957. The book was an instant success, and with not a little help from western secret services – MI6 and the CIA secretly distributed English copies of it behind the Iron Curtain. Pasternak was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, but had to turn it down after pressure from the Soviet authorities.
9. MEIN KAMPF, HITLER
Hitler’s notorious autobiography preaches hatred of Jews, democracy, Communists, and just about any non-Germans. After the Second World War, it was strictly banned in former Axis countries, to prevent his disciples from using the book as a guide to seizing power once again. The 720-page manifesto is still unavailable in Russia and Austria, and was recently prohibited in Germany. This was until the copyright expired last year, meaning it could be published for the first time in over 70 years.
10. LYSISTRATA, ARISTOPHANES
Greece, United States
Aristophanes’ play about a group of women, who try to bring about an end to the Peloponnesian War by refusing sex to their husbands until peace came, was highly censored after its release in 411BC because it was deemed ‘unacceptably subversive’. The controversy surrounding the play resurfaced again Junta-era Greece, when the generals ruling the country banned it for its anti-war, anti-militaristic themes. Even more curiously, it was banned in the US from 1873 right up until 1930, due to the powerful women it portrays.