We well know of the most famous cases of banned books: James Joyce’s Ulysses, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. In fact, a full 46 of Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels” have been suppressed or challenged in some way. The American Library Association maintains a page that details the charges against each one. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird saw a challenge in the Vernon Verona Sherill, New York school district in 1980 as a “filthy, trashy novel” and in 1996, Lindale, Texas banned it from the advanced placement English reading list because it “conflicted with the values of the community.” Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath has a lengthy rap sheet, including total banning in Ireland (1953), Morris, Manitoba (1982), and all high school classes in Kanawha, Iowa (1980). The list of censored undisputed classics—every one of which surely has its own piece of giant store art in Barnes & Nobles nationwide—goes on.
In many ways this is typical. “The banned books lists you’ll find in many libraries and bookstores,” writes John Mark Ockerbloom at Everybody’s Libraries, “doesn’t [sic] focus much on the political samizdat, security exposés, or portrayals of Mohammed that are the objects of forcible suppression today. Instead, they’re often full of classics and popular titles sold widely in bookstores and online—or dominated by books written for young readers, or assigned for school reading.” Are these lists—and the banned books celebrations that occasion them—just “shameless propaganda” as conservative Thomas Sowell alleges? “Is it wrong to call these books banned?” asks Ockerbloom in his essay “Why Banned Books Week Matters.” Of course he answers in the negative; “not if you take readers seriously. An unread book, after all, has as little impact as an unpublished book.” Books that don’t pass muster with administrators, school boards, library associations, and legislators of all kinds, argues Ockerbloom, can be as inaccessible to young readers as those that get destroyed or fully suppressed in parts of the world without legal provisions for free speech.
This situation is in great part remediated by the free availability of texts on the internet, whether those currently under a ban or those that—even if they line the shelves in brick and mortar stores and Amazon warehouses—still meet with frequent challenges from community organizations eager to control what their citizens read. Today, in honor of this year’s Banned Books Week, we bring you free online texts of 14 banned books that appear on the Modern Library’s top 100 novels list. Next to each title, see some of the reasons these books were challenged, banned, or, in many cases, burned.
This staple of high school English classes everywhere seems to mostly get a pass. It did, however, see a 1987 challenge at the Baptist College in Charleston, SC for “language and sexual references.”
Seized and burned by postal officials in New York when it arrived stateside in 1922, Joyce’s masterwork generally goes unread these days because of its legendary difficulty, but for ten years, until Judge John Woolsey’s decision in its favor in 1932, the novel was only available in the U.S. as a bootleg. Ulysses was also burned—and banned—in Ireland, Canada, and England.
Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare often seems like one of the very few things liberals and conservatives can agree on—no one wants to live in the future he imagines. Nonetheless, the novel was challenged in Jackson County, Florida in 1981 for its supposedly “pro-communist” message, in addition to its “explicit sexual matter.”
Again the target of right-wing ire, Orwell’s work was challenged in Wisconsin in 1963 by the John Birch Society, who objected to the words “masses will revolt.” A 1968 New Survey found that the novel regularly appeared on school lists of “problem books.” The reason most often cited: “Orwell was a communist.”
- Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (Audio)
Vonnegut’s classic has been challenged by parents and school boards since 1973, when it was burned in Drake, North Dakota. Most recently, it’s been removed from a sophomore reading list at the Coventry, RI high school in 2000; challenged by an organization called LOVE (Livingstone Organization for Values in Education) in Howell, MI in 2007; and challenged, but retained, along with eight other books, in Arlington Heights, IL in 2006. In that case, a school board member, “elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, raised the controversy based on excerpts from the books she’d found on the internet.” Hear Vonnegut himself read the novel here.
London’s most popular novel hasn’t seen any official suppression in the U.S., but it was banned in Italy and Yugoslavia in 1929. The book was burned in Nazi bonfires in 1933; something of a historical irony given London’s own racist politics.
The Nazis also burned Sinclair’s novel because of the author’s socialist views. In 1959, East Germany banned the book as “inimical to communism.”
Lawrence courted controversy everywhere. Chatterly was banned by U.S. customs in 1929 and has since been banned in Ireland (1932), Poland (1932), Australia (1959), Japan (1959), India (1959), Canada (1960) and, most recently, China in 1987 because it “will corrupt the minds of young people and is also against the Chinese tradition.”
- In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (Read First Section Online)
This true crime classic was banned, then reinstated, at Savannah, Georgia’s Windsor Forest High School in 2000 after a parent “complained about sex, violence, and profanity.”
Lawrence endured a great deal of persecution in his lifetime for his work, which was widely considered pornographic. Thirty years after his death, in 1961, a group in Oklahoma City calling itself Mothers Unite for Decency “hired a trailer, dubbed it ‘smutmobile,’ and displayed books deemed objectionable,” including Sons and Lovers.
- Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs (Audio)
If anyone belongs on a list of obscene authors, it’s Burroughs, which is only one reason of the many reasons he deserves to be read. In 1965, the Boston Superior Court banned Burroughs’ novel. The State Supreme Court reversed that decision the following year. Listen to Burroughs read the novel here.
Poor Lawrence could not catch a break. In one of many such acts against his work, the sensitive writer’s fifth novel was declared obscene in 1922 by the rather unimaginatively named New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.
- An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser (Read Online Now)
American literature’s foremost master of melodrama, Dreiser’s novel was banned in Boston in 1927 and burned by the Nazi bonfires because it “deals with low love affairs.”
You can learn much more about the many books that have been banned, suppressed, or censored at the University of Pennsylvania’s “Banned Books Online” page, and learn more about the many events and resources available for Banned Books Week at the American Library Association’s website.