Today, book bans are far more common than we’d care to think or admit. Every year hundreds of books are challenged in efforts to get them far away from the eyes of everyday citizens. The reason behind these bands can be a wide variety of things, depending on who’s attempting to ban the book.
At its core, the practice of banning books is an effort to reduce the spread of certain things that people believe are unsuitable for society. Of course, this means things like violence, disrespect of authority (parents, police, political leaders, authority figures, etc.), and a host of other things. But the main reason why books get banned is to stop the spread of certain ideas. Some of these bans are benign, while others have serious consequences. Such as…
The banning of Maus is a rather new entry to the book-banning discussion. It’s also among the most high-profile examples of banned books in recent history. Maus is a graphic novel that was created by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman. It was serialized between 1980 and 1991. Spiegelman created the narrative for Maus by interviewing his father, who was a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. As a result, he created a story where he represented Jews as mice while the villains, in this case, the Germans and Poles, as cats and pigs.
What could be argued is an important story for everyone to read and digest further to understand the holocaust in a more palatable way became the target of a successful book-banning effort. In January, the McMinn County school board in Tennessee voted unanimously to outright ban Maus from the eighth-graders curriculum. What is interesting about the banning of Maus is that while it seems contained to a district in a single state, it’s part of a growing trend where History is being increasingly whitewashed. In this case, Maus was just the lightning rod. As a result of the book ban, Maus saw a huge increase in interest and sales.
9. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Most are familiar with the tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but some might be surprised to learn that this book was once heavily challenged. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland follows Alice, who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantastical world where very little makes sense. Originally published in 1865, the first ban came about in 1900 when New Hampshire banned it for promoting sexual fantasies and self-pleasure. However, it’s been deemed more likely that this ban was about the author’s promiscuity rather than the material itself. Of course, this isn’t the first and only attempt made to ban Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
In China in 1931, a government censor, General Ho Chien, banned the book for its portrayal of animals. More specifically, it was the animals acting like humans. He believed that putting animals on equal footing in children’s eyes was not only insulting to humans but also disastrous and dangerous. This largely speaks to China’s beliefs surrounding animals which is largely believed to be that the Chinese view animals as ‘human’s tools and property.’
In the 1960s, nearly a decade after Disney made their animated film adapting the book, the US was back to attempting to ban Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The reason this time? Drug usage. While successful at the time, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s fantastical tale has lived on.
8. Grapes of Wrath
Following the Joad family in the 1930s, a family of farmers who loses everything in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Grapes of Wrath is an American classic. The core of the story deals with the effects of the Great Depression as the Joad family seek opportunity in California. However, it doesn’t just speak of the family’s struggle but the plight of everyday people in what was a catastrophic moment in economic and American history. You’d think this would have been a pivotal book to read, but not everyone would agree with this assessment.
Grapes of Wrath was banned across the country in various counties and cities. Some of the biggest opponents of the book were those residing in Kern County, California, where the fictional Joad family ended up. In 1939, they voted to ban the book in the county’s schools and libraries in a 4 to 1 vote. This challenge was aided by the local Associated Farmers organization, who weren’t happy that it fomented outrage over their labor practices. As a result, they called the book a ‘pack of lies’ and even went as far as publicizing book burnings.
The AF was not alone, numerous outlets and organizations went on a campaign to smear the book and distort its message, and in a way, it worked. The book became a villain in its own right, being the poster of anti-American sentiments, a desire for communism, and anti-individualism. However, the banning of Grapes of Wrath is considered a key event in the creation of the Library Bill of Rights. So, in this case, the book ban helped everyone by providing protection too available knowledge.
If ever there was a more polarizing book, it would be Lolita. This book was published in 1955 and written by Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov and follows a fictional author who becomes obsessed with his 12-year-old step-daughter leading him to kidnap her where the two form a strange and abusive relationship. Of course, it’s easy to see why this book was challenged and why in many cases, it won. The book ended up getting banned in numerous countries, such as England in 1955, France in 1956, Argentina in 1959, and New Zealand in 1960. This ended up helping Nabokov as he hadn’t published the book in the US until 1958, and the bans created a ton of press for his forthcoming book.
The book, while a bestseller, drew a polarized response from many. While some called it grotesque, others hailed it as one of the best of the year and deemed it likely to become a classic. The book was banned in numerous countries due to obscenities in the book. However, and perhaps more interestingly, the book was never banned in the United States. It’s likely that the 1933 case ‘The United States of America v. One Book Called “Ulysses”’ had something to do with that. Of course, the book is still challenged around the world. But nevertheless, Lolita, as controversial as it is, is no longer banned and remains as polarizing as ever.
6. The Handmaid’s Tale
Margret Atwood is a prolific writer who’s written her fair share of books since 1961, but few have left a mark as much as The Handmaid’s Tale. The book, originally published in 1985, has gone on to be a gripping tale of a dystopian future set in New England which is now a totalitarian state run on the laws of Christianity known formally as the Republic of Gilead. In this republic, women are assigned to classes, one of which is to reproduce for their masters and their barren wives. Atwood’s haunting tale is one that’s been banned not only on local levels in the United States but outright in other countries like Spain and Portugal.
With the current political climate surrounding the argument of abortions around the world, but primarily in the United States, The Handmaid’s Tale has become more relevant and challenged. Atwood responded directly to these book ban efforts and threats by creating a copy of the book that cannot be burned at all. It ranks as one of the more interesting responses to a persistent book-banning effort.
An interesting book ban is that of Spycatcher. Written by the UK’s former Assistant Director of MI5, Peter Wright, this book caused quite a stir when first published in 1987. Wright tells his story and draws on the history of the British Intelligence Community to craft a compelling memoir. Of course, this book infuriated many of those in power across the UK government and intelligence agencies. Why? Because it told of truths that they didn’t want the public to know about, such as how the agency operated beyond the boundaries of laws where the only rule you needed to follow was not to get caught. From this book, the world of espionage was blown wide open. As a result, the British government made every effort to suppress the material. Still, it only made the book even more successful abroad.
Spycatcher caused a lot of commotion in the UK, where the government targeted not only the book itself but also newspapers and media outlets publishing the material in the novel. Their efforts went as far as attempting to get the book banned in other countries, such as Australia, where Peter Wright had lived for several years following his retirement from the agency.
4. Communist Manifesto
Published way back in 1848, The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, was a controversial piece of work from the start. It’s not truly considered a book and was instead considered a ‘political pamphlet’ this document would become one of the most influential political documents in the world. The manifesto addressed capitalism and promoted the idea of communism. If anything, The Communist Manifesto created a blueprint for the communist movement. It saw a future where the working class overthrew the ruling class and made a more fair landscape for all to thrive equally.
The infamous political document was banned in numerous countries, including Russia, Germany, and the US. When it was banned in Russia, it was during the reign of the imperial dynasty, The Romanovs. Of course, this ideology went against the very system they’d created. While they weren’t a capitalist society, they were the very definition of the ruling class, and for their reign, this document was a threat. The manifesto was able to start a revolution in France almost immediately after being printed. While it ultimately was unsuccessful, Vladimir Lenin, a known Marxist, would prevail in Russia come 1917.
3. Mein Kampf
As any basic history lesson on WW2 will tell you, Mein Kampf was Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto. First released in 1925, more than a decade before the Second World War, Hitler published his 720-page manifesto in two volumes, one in 1925 and the other in 1926. Mein Kampf, which translates to ‘my struggle,’ was almost a blueprint for his ideology and thinking that created Nazism. The book was nothing more than a list of grievances, racist thoughts, and dangerous ideas of what Germany should become post-WW1. As history tells us, it did.
During Hitler’s time in power, the book grew in success and even became required reading. Of course, we know that Germany lost the war, and Hitler took his own life in 1945. After he died, Germany was left with a further tainted legacy and the manifesto of its worst dictator. So, they made every effort they could to destroy the book’s very existence. The book was banned in Germany following Hitler’s death and was also banned in several other countries, including Australia, Austria, and the Netherlands. At one point, online retailer Amazon even banned the selling of the book, but this was quickly reversed.
Unfortunately for Germany, they can’t stop it all as the book became public domain in 2015, and now anyone is allowed to print the book and distribute it, which has raised concerns in Germany that Hitler’s ideas may become popularized again. In response to the book becoming available once again, the German Institute for Contemporary History published a copy of the book, which was a critical edition that contextualizes the ideas and role of Hitler and how the ideology was the blueprint of WW2 and the Holocaust. While the ban on Mein Kampf makes sense, it brings about a broader question of if it did more harm than good, as many book bans have resulted in increased interest.
2. Why We Can’t Wait
The Civil Rights movement in the United States was one of the most trying times for the fight for equality and at the helm was Martin Luthor King Jr. By no means was he alone in this fight, but he became the voice for millions and was extremely influential and active in the cause until his assassination in 1968. During his lifetime, Martin Luther King Jr. was a prolific author writing six books, with several more coming out posthumously, collecting speeches, sermons, writings, interviews, etc. One such book that caused the biggest stir was Why We Can’t Wait, but it caused more of a stir in South Africa.
By the time of its ban, Martin Luther King Jr. had already been assassinated. His name was known around the world, and he’d even spoken of South Africa in regard to Apartheid. His book was banned for a very specific reason and one that 21st-century minds may struggle to justify. The reason Why We Can’t Wait was banned was because the book was critical of white supremacy. During Apartheid, that was the kind of country South Africa was: built and run by white supremacy. There were many books of similar nature banned in South Africa during apartheid, and they all had similar themes of criticizing the Apartheid system, which ultimately fell in 1994.
1. Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Similar to Ulysses by James Joyce, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has been one of the books to receive some of the most challenges throughout history. This classic first released in 1928 and written by D. H. Lawrence, follows an affair between Constance Reid and Oliver Mellors, her husband’s educated gamekeeper. The book itself was barely formally released before getting banned. Instead, it was published privately and mailed to people around the world.
Throughout the existence of this book, it’s been heavily challenged, and in many countries, it’s been outright banned. The book itself, while released in 1928, was banned in the US until 1959, and in 1960 the UK finally got an uncensored version of the famed book. Elsewhere in the world, the book was taken to trial after trial for obscenity charges, such as in Canada, India, Australia, and Japan. It’s important to understand we live in a very different world than when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first released. These days erotic novels and movies are far more common than they ever were back in the early 20th century. If anything, the existence of novels like 50 Shades of Grey may have Lady Chatterley’s Lover to thank, as once the book was unbanned, the sexual revolution of the ’60s began. And now, here we; oversaturated with Lady Chatterleys and their lovers.