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Banned Books

Banned Books Shapero Rare Books

‘The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.’

― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Banned Books Shapero Rare Books

One of the earliest known examples of books being banned is as far back as 212 BC. Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of a unified China is said to have buried alive 460 Confucian scholars in order to control the writing of history. He burned all the books in China, retaining only a single copy of each for the Royal Library. With all historical records now destroyed, he believed history could be said to begin with him. Sadly, things haven’t changed much over the years, and similar tales can be seen right up to the present day.

Recently we shared across social media books that have at one time or another been banned, burnt, censored or abridged. The reasons range from racism to anti-religious sentiment, from immorality to indecency, the advocating of drug use or simply just the ‘portrayal of exclusively middle class rabbits’ (I’m looking at you Peter Rabbit….). The texts shine a light on less enlightened times, the changing face of morality and the role of the state and religion in culture. Whilst the vast majority of these are from the past, the written word is still being censored by governments, schools and religions.

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

One of the most prolific examples of banning comes The Vatican. The ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’ contained works that were deemed heretical, or contrary to morality by the Sacred Congregation of the Index. Published annually up until 1966, when it was formally abolished by Pope Paul VI, any works included were forbidden to be read by Catholics.

Interestingly, this all started around the time Gutenberg printed his bible (around 1454). Books, once rare and kept carefully in a small number of libraries, could now be mass-produced and widely circulated. The Church saw that printing could enable the spread of immorality and bad faith and, attempted to stem the tide of rapidly spreading ideas.

Below is a selection of books from the shelves at Shapero that found their way on to the Index:

Joseph ADDISON The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison London, 1721 £3,950

The Works of Joseph Addison

Placed on the list of Banned Books in 1729, where they remained until the abolishment of the Index.

This set is in four volumes with an engraved portrait frontispiece.

Honoré DE BALZAC Die Geschichte von der Liebe der schönen Seneschallin Blanche, anders Die lässliche Sünde... Basel, 1951

Honoré De Balzac (Droll Stories)

Balzac's work was added to the list of Banned Books in 1841, where they remained until it was abolished.

This a limited edition, one of only 350 copies. The translation is by Walter Widmer and it includes 5 coloured woodcuts by Felix Hoffman.

John MILTON Paradise Lost: A Poem in Ten Books London, 1669

Paradise Lost

The first edition of Milton's masterpiece, 'one of the greatest works of the human imagination' (DNB).


Morality features heavily in the history of book banning. Sex, drugs and language were all reasons for abridging and censoring across schools, countries, religions and even the odd prison

Below are the chief contenders from the top shelves, with one or two wholly unexpected entries.

Oscar WILDE Oscar Wilde, the Works London & Paris, 1908-22

The Works of Oscar Wilde

The first collected edition of Wilde's works.

Lewis CARROLL Alice's Adventures in Wonderland London, 1879

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Rare editions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with wood-engraved illustrations by John Tenniel.

William SHAKESPEARE The Plays of William Shakespeare London, 1793 £3,500

The Works of William Shakespeare

In fifteen volumes with the corrections and illustrations of various commentators. Including notes by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens.

Kenneth GRAHAME The Wind in the Willows London, 1908 £4,750

The Wind in the Willows

First edition. With a frontispiece by Graham Robertson and bound in publisher's pictorial blue-green cloth.

Germany 1933 - 1945

It should come as no surprise that the National Socialists stepped into the arena of book banning and burning.

They waged a fastidious campaign against the written word not too dis-similar to Shih Huang Ti. The books targeted were those viewed as being subversive or representing ideologies contrary to their belief system.

As expected, Jewish authors featured heavily but also pacifist, religious, classical liberal, anarchist, socialist, and communist authors found their way on to the list.

Karl MARX Le Capital Paris, 1872 £4,500

The Works of Karl Marx

First edition of the French volume of Das Kapital and the first issue with the publisher Lachâtre's imprint.

The Works of Leon Trotsky

First edition, written in the first year of his exile in Turkey after being declared enemy of the state.

Soviet Russia 1917 - 1991

The Soviets were systematic in their banning of works from inside and outside of the Soviet states and many authors found themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Subversive Russian authors would find their works banned often with ideological campaigns waged against them to further try and discredit their work. In extreme cases writers could find themselves locked up in gulags. Many authors critical of the Soviet regime fled Russia or had their works smuggled out of the country to be published aboard.

Mikhail BULGAKOV The Master and Margarita London, 1967

The Master and Margarita

Banned for decades, Bulgakov's masterpiece was only available in clandestine Samizdat form. In 1966 a version was permitted to be printed in the literary magazine Moskva.

This is a first edition from the first attempt to publish this remarkable novel in English, using the bowdlerised Russian text as published in Moskva.

Arthur Conan DOYLE The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [with] The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. London, 1892

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

With The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, both first editions. Rare to come across this edition in this condition. Illustrated by Sidney Paget.

George ORWELL Nineteen Eighty-four London, 1949

Nineteen Eighty-four

Rare, first edition and first impression of one of the century's greatest novels.

Modern Examples

Books are still banned or censored around the world whether through moral, religious of governmental reasons.

J.K. ROWLING Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone London, 1999

The Harry Potter Series

Rare, first impression of the deluxe edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Beatrix POTTER [A rare Beatrix Potter Collection in Near-Fine Condition] London, 1910

Beatrix Potter Books

A rare set of early reprints of Beatrix Potter's iconic tales, in near-fine condition. These stories have delighted generations of children through Potter's storytelling genius and beautiful illustrations.

Roald DAHL James and the Giant Peach New York, 1961

James and the Giant Peach An unusually fine example of the scarce first book written by Roald Dahl for children.

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Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

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