Banned Books: The Freedom to Read

‘A dangerous book will always be in danger from those it threatens with the demand that they question their assumptions. They’d rather hang on to the assumptions and ban the book.’

Ursula K. Le Guin

Celebrating the freedom to read, Banned Books Week has become a focal point in the literary year here at Shapero Rare Books.

Over the years we’ve had some truly iconic works on the shelves at 32 Saint George Street that have, at one time or another, fallen foul of governments, schools, the public and the odd dictator. Radical, rebellious, subversive and sensationalist, these are the books who refused to be silenced; these are the books that changed the world one word at a time; these ‘are books that show the world its own shame’ (Oscar Wilde).

Here we look at first editions of some of the most important books that have ever been banned, burned, censored or abridged.

Please get in touch if you have any questions about any of the books below, or if you would like us to source ones not currently in stock.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)

‘Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.’

A novel that haunts as well as moves, Walker’s epistolary tale is a literary classic. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, Alice Walker became the first black woman to do so in the Prize’s history. Not without controversy The Color Purple has been banned by school boards across the United States since its publication due to the vivid depictions of violence, particularly rape; offensive language; sexual content, with scenes of lesbian love; and perceived racism.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

‘I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin’.⁠ ⁠

Huxley’s dystopian masterpiece was first banned in Ireland upon publication and has gone on to be one of the most challenged and contested books of all time. Still making waves nearly 90 years later, this savage satire falls foul of schools in America.

Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

‘I care not if I live but a day and a night, so long as my deeds live after me.’

One of the most famous of all banned books, Joyce’s modernist classic is sometimes better known for its banning and the subsequent obscenity trial, rather than the content of the actual book itself.  A shame as the meandering epic is truly brilliant.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)

‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.’

Taking aim at what Salinger saw as a superficial society, The Catcher in the Rye is an iconic classic of 20th-century literature. Exploring teenage angst, alienation in society and the human need for connection, it’s a wise (and at times witty) look at the bewildering sense of loss as we leave childhood behind. One of the most censored books in America, it continues to make it onto lists in schools and libraries.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

‘Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes it’ll on’y be one.’

One of the greatest works in the canon of American literature, The Grapes of Wrath was one of the Nobel Prize committee’s main reasons for granting Steinbeck the Prize for Literature in 1962. Despite this and a Pulitzer Prize to boot, the book has ruffled a few feathers since publication. Steinbeck was labelled a communist in America but ironically the book was banned in the Soviet Union by Stalin… Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place!

‘Any book worth banning is a book worth reading.’

Isaac Asimov

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)

‘They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.’

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was originally a commercial flop yet went on to be one of Twain’s best-loved works with the character of Tom Sawyer being one of literature’s greats. Satirising the moral rigidity of society and adult hypocrisy, as well as the racist mores of the time, it is a true masterpiece, yet that hasn’t stopped the odd banning here and there. Libraries in New York and Colorado banned the book soon after it came out, claiming Sawyer was a protagonist of ‘questionable character’ (to be honest, I think Tom would probably approve of the controversy).

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’

Another unusual example of a book being banned in the United States for being ‘pro-communist’, to then ironically finding itself both banned and burned in Soviet Russia for its anti-communist views….

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

‘I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we don’t really exist if you don’t.’

Unsurprisingly Nabokov’s shocking, controversial yet dizzying masterpiece about a sexual relationship between a middle aged man and a 12 year old girl, after he becomes her stepfather has consistently found itself banned since its publication.  Considered by many to be the greatest book of the 20th century, Lolita has been banned in France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (1924-28)

‘I’m not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.’

A rather surprising addition to any banned books list featuring dystopian novels, sexual controversies and more. The whimsical Winnie-the Pooh has strangely found itself in hot water over in China where the current president has banned the book and the films. Why you ask? Because of a rather strong similarity in likeness between the two…

‘If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.’

Haruki Murikami

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)

‘Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be … when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.’

Banned across schools in America due to ‘profanity’, Death of a Salesman won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. A scathing indictment of the ultimate failure of the American dream, it is a harrowing work of brilliance that chastises the empty pursuit of wealth and success.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 1936

‘Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is.’

Whilst bed-ridden with a broken ankle in 1926, a young Atlanta journalist by the name of Margaret Mitchell started writing a novel that would go on to become Gone With the Wind (a book that would earn her the Pulitzer Prize). A story about war, starvation, rape, murder, heartbreak and slavery, yet above all it is a story of hope, with the character of Scarlett O’Hara unrelenting in her optimism and determination. Not without controversy, the book has been banned at various points and has been accused of whitewashing slavery.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

‘Shoot all the Bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.’

To Kill a Mockingbird is the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its main character, Atticus Finch, remains the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism. With a long history with censorship, the book has been challenged for its depiction of violence, offensive language, and racism.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)

‘A woman has to live her life, or live to repent not having lived it.’

A watershed moment in the history of publishing, Penguin Books was the subject of a landmark obscenity trial under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 when they attempted to publish the full unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960s. Penguin went on to win the case (and then sold 3 million copies….) resulting in a far greater degree of freedom for publishing in the United Kingdom. Prior to this the only copies available in England were heavily censored and abridged.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’

Both heavily challenged and heavily celebrated, The Handmaid’s Tale has been banned and restricted in schools across America. With a title inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Atwood’s terrifying dystopian nightmare is a powerful exploration of female oppression.

‘If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.’

Benjamin Franklin

On the origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

‘One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.’

Science is no stranger to book banning, especially when it refutes the biblical history of man and man’s creation. Arguably the most influential banned book, On the Origin of Species was removed from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, where Darwin had been a student and then across States and schools in the US.  In 1925 Tennessee passed a law stating that it couldn’t be taught in classrooms.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988)

‘Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.’

In 1989 the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa instructing muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses. Numerous attempts on his life were made and Rushdie had to go into hiding with 24-hour armed guards. Alongside this there were a number of bookshop bombings in America. The book has been banned in India, Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, Pakistan and of course Iran. The controversy stems in part from the book being inspired by the life of the Prophet Muhammad, with many Muslims accusing Rushdie of blasphemy.

The English writer Hanif Kureishi called the fatwa ‘one of the most significant events in postwar literary history’.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

‘The thing is – fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream.’

A brutal portrait of the savagery of humanity, The Lord of the Flies still ignites as much debate as when it was first published. Banned from numerous American schools over the years, according to the American Library Association, it is the eighth most frequently banned and challenged book in the States.

Salome by Oscar Wilde (1894)

‘It is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees. It makes life too full of terrors.’

After the play was banned from the London stage on the basis that it was illegal to depict characters from the Bible, Wilde’s Biblical tragedy Salome was originally published in France in 1893. The following year it was published in English, with Aubrey Beardsley’s striking illustrations.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1954)

‘The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.’

A book about banning and burning books also found itself the subject of banning – meta banning you could say! It was banned in one school in America because one of the books that eventually gets banned and burned is the Bible. Alongside this it was banned in some schools for depictions of violence and bad language.

‘What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.’ 

Salman Rushdie