Skip to content

Eight Banned Books That Might Surprise You

Eight Banned Books That Might Surprise You Shapero Rare Books

The banning of books by dissident authors in repressive regimes such as Stalinist Russia is well-documented, but here are some titles you might not have realised were also banned – in some cases, much closer to home.

Eight Banned Books That Might Surprise You Shapero Rare Books

The banning of books by dissident authors in repressive regimes such as Stalinist Russia is well-documented, but here are some titles you might not have realised were also banned – in some cases, much closer to home.

1. Lewis CARROLL. Alice in Wonderland.

‘Curiouser and curiouser…’

Very curiously indeed, Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic was banned in China in 1931 on account of the animal characters’ ability to speak. The governor of Hunan province at the time, Ho Chien, expressed concern about ‘anthropomorphised animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings.’

2. Sir Arthur Conan DOYLE. A Study in Scarlet.

‘"It’s quite exciting,” said Sherlock Holmes, with a yawn.’

The first in the series about the world’s most famous detective, A Study in Scarlet is still to this day banned in one school in America because of its unfavourable comments about Mormonism. Conan Doyle writes, ‘[t]he invisibility and the mystery which was attached to it [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] made this organisation doubly terrible,’ and later describes how, ‘the supply of adult women was running short [...] fresh women appeared in the harems of the Elders – women who pined and wept, and bore upon their faces the traces of an unextinguishable horror.’

3. James JOYCE. Ulysses.

‘Think you're escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home. ’

This account of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom is loved and hated in equal measure, though more for its rambling, experimental prose style than any particularly offensive subject matter. It was, however, found to be obscene by several authorities: click here to read the 1922 letter by the British Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Archibald Bodkin, declaring Ulysses a ‘filthy’ book and suggesting that it ‘not be allowed to be imported into the country.’ The book remained banned in the UK until the 1930s, and in 1933 was the subject of the most famous obscenity trial in US history.

4. Anne SEWELL. Black Beauty.

‘We shall all have to be judged according to our works…’

Anna Sewell’s novel, which charmingly claims on its title page to have been ‘translated from the equine,’ is one of the best-selling books of all time. However, the story goes that in South Africa during apartheid (1948-1994), the book was banned on the grounds that the censor had not read it and assumed from its title that it promoted the rights of black people.  Several textbooks on the history of South Africa state this as fact, though there is a great deal of scepticism from scholars, who believe the story must be an urban myth – perhaps simply because such ignorance beggars belief.

5. Anne FRANK. The Diary of a Young Girl.

‘Who would ever think that so much went on in the soul of a young girl.’

It might surprise you to learn that this book, the real-life diary of a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, is a constant target for book banning campaigners – not in authoritarian regimes, but in the southern states of America, where organisations such as the Alabama State Textbook Committee seek to protect their children from the work, describing it as ‘a real downer.

6. Geoffrey CHAUCER. The Canterbury Tales.

‘People can die of mere imagination.’

No one will be surprised to learn that Chaucer’s 14th-century work, featuring the saucy Wife of Bath and a rather creepy Friar, was considered extremely risqué in its day; more surprising is the fact that the work was banned in the US as well as several other countries until well into the late 20th century. Even today, abridged versions are commonplace.

7. Enid BLYTON. The Famous Five.

‘It wasn’t a bit of good fighting grown-ups. They could do exactly as they liked.’

Even before gift shops everywhere began selling tongue-in-cheek titles such as Five on Brexit Island and Five Go Gluten Free, the jolly japes of Dick and the gang attracted controversy. Enid Blyton's books were banned for 30 years by the BBC, who dismissed her as a ‘second rater,' her works lacking ‘literary value.’ As well as the Famous Five series, this ban applied to Blyton’s Noddy books, which came under fire for racism; nowadays, however, the TV adaptation of Noddy’s adventures is shown regularly on the BBC’s children’s channel, CBBC.

8. Ernest HEMINGWAY. A Farewell to Arms.

‘Cowards die a thousand deaths, but the brave only die once.’

This semi-autobiographical novel immediately upset audiences on both sides of the military conflict at its heart. Set in Italy during the First World War, the book was banned from Boston newsstands on its publication in 1929 as a result of its apparent vulgarity (in particular, the four letter words used by its soldier protagonists). Italians, meanwhile, were offended by Hemingway’s depiction of their army’s retreat at the battle of Caporetto, and banned the book in 1948.

Previous article Caring for Antique Books

Leave a comment

* Required fields

Enjoy reading our blog?

Sign up for our newsletter and stay in the know!

About Us

About Us

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

Shop online and enjoy free international shipping now.


read more

Your cart is empty

Continue shopping