What’s the best way to gain a cult following? Have your book banned. There’s nothing more intriguing than a book banned for ‘indecency’, being told it’s ‘obscene’ and ‘inappropriate.’ Tell us we can’t read something and that’s all we want to do (we’re simple, rebellious folk.) Books piled high on fires (the greatest sacrilege) will always find their way into our hands – so here’s The Readhead’s Top 7 Banned Books for your defiant and offensive reading list.
- The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
The book cited as the inspiration for John Lennon’s assassination and the ultimate book of teen angst. This classic American novel from the reclusive J.D. Salinger follows the teenage Holden Caulfield as he examines the world around him, full of ‘phonies’ and hypocrisy which he both isolates himself from and reaches out to for a connection. The Catcher in the Rye has frequently been removed from school libraries and classrooms for it’s ‘unacceptable’, ‘obscene’, ‘blasphemous’, ‘foul’, ‘filthy’, ‘negative’ and immoral content…what’s a better sales pitch than that?
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.’
It’s not hard to guess why this piece, from the Russian-America Nabokov, was banned for being ‘obscene’ in the UK, France, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada for varying periods of time. The novel focuses on the unreliable narrator, Professor Humbert Humbert, who is plagued by an obsession for young girls – in particular the 12 year old Dolores Haze, who he nicknames ‘Lolita.’ A strange and uncomfortable novel, yet beautifully written and even has the reader sympathising with Humbert, Lolita breaks all the rules.
- Native Son, Richard Wright, 1940
“Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself, that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in the room where a white girl had been killed: therefore he had killed her. That was what everyone would say, anyhow, no matter what he said.”
Another uncomfortable but extremely striking read is Richard Wright’s Native Son, a story of marginalisation, anger and racism following the life of Bigger Thomas, a poor black man from Chicago. When Bigger starts working for a rich white family as a chauffeur he finds himself in many uncomfortable, frustrating and awkward situations which underline the racist complexities of his world. After he accidentally kills the daughter of the family, we follow him fleeing, his capture and his trial, where he is ultimately sentenced to death. Native Son has been removed from at least eight different US states for being considered ‘violent and sexually graphic.’
- Howl, Allen Ginsberg, 1956
‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix’
Allen Ginsberg’s boundary-pushing, experimental poetic works were challenged due to their references to illicit drugs and descriptions of heterosexual and homosexual acts, with lines such as
‘who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.’
Copies of the first edition were seized by San Francisco Customs for obscenity in March 1957. This was followed by a very public trial where the obscenity charges were ultimately dismissed. Howl is now considered one of the most important pieces of Beat writing and a piece of classic American poetry.
- Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Orwell’s novella was not banned due to its lewdness or violence, but due to its political nature. Following a farm run by animals, the book mirrors the events leading to the Russian Revolution of 1917, then scrutinises the Stalinist era which Orwell was so opposed to. As a democratic socialist, Orwell was critical of Stalin and believed the Soviet Union did not represent socialism but a brutal dictatorship. He reflects the cult of personality with the animals in Animal Farm to criticise the propaganda of the Soviet Union, and claimed to have intentionally written Animal Farm ‘to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.’
Orwell struggled to find a publisher who would print Animal Farm due to its obvious criticism of the USSR, who remained an important ally of Britain in the War. When it finally was published in 1945 (after being completed in 1943), it was banned in the USSR and in other communist regions. It remains banned in North Korea and is censored in Vietnam.
- Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855
‘The Female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.’
Walt Whitman is now considered one of America’s great poets, but at the time of his collection’s publishing many were off put by the poetry’s sensuality, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice describing this sensuality as ‘disturbing.’ Leaves of Grass was intended as a celebration of Whitman’s philosophy of life and humanity, praising nature and the individual’s role in it. Nevertheless, his sensual language was enough to have booksellers in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts advising patrons not to buy the book, describing it as ‘filthy.’ Indeed, when it was first published Whitman was fired from his job after his boss read it and found it ‘offensive’, while critics called it ‘a mass of stupid filth’ written by a ‘filthy free lover’, hinting at Whitman’s homosexuality and criticising his overt sexual imagery. Whitman persevered and continued revising and rewriting the collection until his death.
- Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, 1963
“Let the wild rumpus start!”
Sendak’s work is now beloved and celebrated as an imaginative and wild examples of children’s literature. However, at the time of publication many parents and librarians were concerned about the disturbing and dark elements of the story, where young Max journeys to the land of the Wild Things and becomes as wild as them. Though it might have been considered scary, it’s no worse than the original old Grimm’s Fairy Tales – children’s literature has always been dark, but Max became one of the monsters rather than fear them. What’s not to love?
Honourable mentions: 1984, Alice in Wonderland, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch 22, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, Fahrenheit 451