This year, from September 27 to October 3 was the 39th Annual Banned Books Week. It is a celebration of liberation of thought and expression. In recent years, as attempts began to have the Harry Potter books banned over claims of Satanic subtexts, the efforts against such policing and often state-sanctioned suppression and stifling of imaginative and original thought have also caught wind.
Come let’s look at some of the famous banned books in history, daring, unconventional, bold and unprecedented in their subject-matter, theme, strong opinion and candid language. Sometimes scandalous and titillating, sometimes outright challenging, these banned books have shaped the history of readership, publication and distribution of books across the globe while also contributing to shaping popular discourse.
The Satanic Verses
Amid a long history of book-burning, to say that this book set things on fire would probably be an understatement. Published in 1988, the novel resulted in the issuing of a fatwa (that is still in place) by the then leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, ordering the killing of Rushdie.
Rushdie’s writings have had a history of sparking controversy, but this one forced him into hiding, the protests turning violent. Referring to the words of Prophet Mohammed, the title itself is seen as blasphemous. Through his skilful magic realism, Rushdie ventures into dangerous territory, challenging core religious beliefs.
As critically acclaimed as fiercely challenged, this was a pivotal moment in the history of banned books that led to debates about how far freedom of expression and imagination could go and if a death sentence is justified for violating what the author worded as the “sensibilities of others.”
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
DH Lawrence too has been a subject of much public outrage due to his provocative and ‘prudish’ thematic concerns. Written during the last years of his life as he suffered from tuberculosis, Lady Chatterley’s Lover perhaps reached the pinnacle of slander, heavily censored and banned across Europe and America for ‘obscenity.’ It was, however, a landmark in the sexual revolution and artistic freedom to clear the pathway for what we would today characterize as ‘smutty and raunchy’ adult fiction.
The Color Purple
Winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, The Color Purple is Alice Walker’s masterpiece. It was banned across American school for its graphic content pertaining to violence and sex. The book is a frightfully realistic depiction of the double marginalization of Black women, containing some lighter moments of formations of formidable female alliances and sexual awakening. Written in epistolary style, it is also the protagonist Celie’s quest for God, which ends in “DEAR GOD. DEAR STARS, DEAR TREES, DEAR SKY, DEAR PEOPLES. DEAR EVERYTHING. DEAR GOD.”
To Kill A Mockingbird
This 1960 classic is a coming-of-age story. This novel by Harper Lee, however, since its inception, has also become one of the most widely challenged and banned books on account of its mentions of rape, violence and racial slurs. Schools have succeeded in having it removed from the classrooms as recently as a couple of years ago.
The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner is a nerve-wracking tale of friendship, perseverance and memory, set against the backdrop of a tumultuous Afghanistan and the Taliban regime. The bestseller quickly fell prey to numerous attempts to have it banned on accounts of graphic sexual and violent content, deeming it unfit for consumption for certain age groups. Hosseini candidly confessed of the reality that motivated such attempts when he said in an interview, “Their beef is, ‘Why do you have to talk about these things and embarrass us? Don’t you love your country?'”
Published in 1991, this Bret Easton Ellis novel has as its protagonist a serial killer. What ensues is an array of startlingly gruesome, nausea-inducing descriptions of violence by the unreliable narrator which might be a feather in the cap of the writer as far as writing ability goes but also swiftly led to American Psycho becoming one of the most widely banned books across the globe.
Centered around the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the novel depicts the life of Yury Zhivago. Banned in the Soviet Union for what the CIA saw as its “great propaganda value,” Boris Pasternak has rendered a heart-shattering portrayal of the vulnerable poet protagonist faced by the Bolsheviks, interwoven with equally moving poetry. During the Civil War, this book was secretly circulated in and around Moscow. Pasternak was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 which he refused.
The Grapes Of Wrath
Referred to as the Great American Novel, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath got varied reception. A Pulitzer winner, the book was banned and burned with claims of ‘communist propaganda’ while the Soviet Union banned it for an entirely different reason, apparently because the government did not want its people knowing that even middle class Americans could afford cars. Invoked historically and politically, it received most formidable opposition from the California Farmers’ Association for its descriptions of the farmers.
Thirteen Reasons Why
Published in 2007, this young adult novel raised alarm for its inappropriateness on approximately the same grounds that Selena Gomez’s Netflix adaptation raises concerns about– explicit violence and sexual content and glamorization of suicide. The book has been steadily pulled away from school libraries, one of the many reasons given to be “negative portrayals of helping professionals.”
The author firmly believes that such content needs to be out there so that kids and teenagers can be made to feel that it’s okay to talk about these issues that many of them suffer from.
The Absolute True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian
With autobiographical notes, Sherman Alexie’s novel is a moving account of a native American teen in first person. Deemed inappropriate for its content involving abuse, alcoholism, sexual explicitness and slurs, it was banned in schools across America. Alexie himself, along with many academics and educators, has come forward in defense of the book by underscoring the importance of ‘exposing’ students to heavier topics and the reality of the lived world.