Banning books is something that most societies have done at some point in their history; a lot of societies still do it. It’s a shameful stain on any national character that we have allowed printed works to be banned, except in very limited – very limited – circumstances.
Some publishers actually specialise in banned books. The best-known examples are Obelisk Press, based in Paris, which published Henry Miller’s sexually frank novel Tropic of Cancer, and Olympia Press, which published William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.
Nowhere in the world can everything be published, although the prohibitions vary strikingly from one country to another: hate speech, for example, is prohibited in a number of countries, such as Sweden, though the same books may be legal in the United States or United Kingdom, where the only prohibition is on child pornography. Some believe that the banning of specific books is appropriate, such as the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in Russia, or Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in Austria.
In the United States, books have been and still are banned by school and public libraries, despite the opposition of the American Library Association. This is usually the result of complaints from parents, who believe particular books aren’t “appropriate” (whatever that means) for their children (books about sexual orientation, for example, such as And Tango Makes Three). In many libraries, including the British Library and the Library of Congress, erotic books are housed in separate collections in restricted access reading room. In some libraries, a special application may be needed to read certain books. Libraries sometimes avoid purchasing controversial books, and the personal opinions of librarians have at times impacted book selection. Bloody stupid; in all those cases, personal censorship is being imposed on other people.
I want to share some examples of books that have been banned, and where, because that might show the breadth of what we’re talking about here.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, was once banned in Hunan, China, for its portrayal of anthropomorphised animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings. The censor, General Ho Chien, believed that attributing human language to animals was an insult to humans. He feared that the book would teach children to regard humans and animals on the same level, which would be “disastrous”.
- American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, was banned in Queensland, Australia, for reasons passing understanding. It’s now available in public libraries and for sale to people who are 18 and above.
- An Area of Darkness, by V S Naipaul, was a travelogue written in the 1960s, and was banned in India for its negative portrayal of Indian people.
- Animal Farm, by George Orwell, was originally blanked by every publisher in the UK, due to its criticism of the USSR, an important ally of Britain in the Second World War. Once published, the book was banned in the USSR and other communist countries. In 2002, the novel was banned in the schools of the United Arab Emirates, because it contained text or images that goes against Islamic values, most notably the occurrence of an anthropomorphic, talking pig. The book is still banned in North Korea, and censored in Vietnam.
- Bible; this is banned or greatly restricted in a number of countries, including North Korea. Recently, Russia has banned import of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Historically, some countries banned the Bible in certain languages or versions. The Bible in Spanish was prohibited in Spain from the sixteenth until the nineteenth century.
- Borstal Boy, by Brendan Behan, was banned in Ireland in 1958. The Irish Censorship of Publications Board was not obliged to reveal its reason, but it’s believed that it was rejected for its critique of Irish republicanism and the Catholic Church, and its depiction of adolescent sexuality. It was banned in Australia and New Zealand shortly after. It was allowed to be published in New Zealand in 1963.
- Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, was also banned in Ireland, this time in 1932, because of references to sexual promiscuity.
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown was banned in Lebanon after priests deemed – bizarrely – that the book was offensive to Christianity,
- Diary of Anne Frank was banned again in Lebanon, because of its positive depiction of Jews.
- The Dictionary of Modern Serbo-Croat was banned in Yugoslavia by the courts in 1966 because “some definitions can cause disturbance among citizens”.
- Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. This was banned by the then-Soviet Union up until 1988 for criticising Russian after its 1917 revolution. Pasternak was even forced to reject the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 because of government pressure.
- The Fifty Shades Trilogy. I could perhaps understand if this had been banned on reasons of poor taste, but no; the entire trilogy was banned in Malaysia from 2015 for containing “sadistic” material and being a “threat to morality”.
- Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, was banned in South Africa in 1955 for “obscene” and “indecent” material.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was banned in parts of the USA, I am astounded to report, including California (where the book was partly set), as it was – in the state government’s eyes – unflattering in its portrayal of local residents.
- Green Eggs & Ham, by Dr Seuss, was banned in China in 1965 because, the Chinese government argued, of its portrayal of early Marxism. After Seuss died in 1991, the ban was lifted; I’m not quite sure what the Chinese felt had changed about the book following Seuss’ death, but never mind – it’s very rare that you can effectively argue with censorship.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling. This was banned – and even burned – in many US states for, apparently, promoting witchcraft. Even some UK Christian schools banned it. Maybe they didn’t realise it’s just a story.
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. Perhaps the most famous of Lawrence’s novels, it was once considered shockingly explicit in its treatment of its subject matter – the adulterous affair between a sexually unfulfilled upper-class married woman and the gamekeeper who works for the estate owned by her husband. Now that we’re used to reading about sex, and seeing it in the movies, it’s apparent that the novel is memorable for better reasons: namely, Lawrence’s masterful and lyrical writing, and a story that takes us bodily into the world of its characters. When the full unexpurgated edition was published by Penguin Books in Britain in 1960, the trial of Penguin under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 was a major public event and a test of the new obscenity law.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, was published in 1945 and banned in the USSR until the 1980s for its allegorical depiction of the rise and fall of socialism and Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Ironically it was also banned in the US for having communist text in the introduction.
Mind-boggling. I struggle to understand how ideas can be banned in the form of the written word. Actually, that’s not entirely true; I can see a government’s thinking, even if I don’t agree with it. Books threaten ideologies; they can challenge the status quo, and they can offend. Good; all three of those concepts should be what books are all about. Not every single book, of course, as some books are just entertaining and nothing else. So any others challenge us to think differently about the world, our culture, our society, and we should be challenged. 1984 by George Orwell challenged our thinking shortly after World War II, and continues to be a very careful polemic again totalitarianism. It also seems to have acted as an instruction manual for North Korea, rather frighteningly, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Child pornography is a special case, where censorship is a sensible argument; children don’t have the capacity to consent to anything sexual, so … oh heavens, should I need to explain why banning child pornography is a good idea? Surely it’s one of things that we just know and take as a matter of good conscience and fact.
Offended by a particular book? Don’t read it. Worried about the impact a book will have on society? Debate it and come up with alternatives ideas. Have a great discussion; don’t hide the book away and pretend you don’t know it exists. That’s just shameful and woefully ignorant.