Obscene, unpatriotic, blasphemous: Banned books through time

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Literature is a powerful thing. For many, it offers a window into the other worlds; an opportunity to be informed and entertained.

But for some, books, and the stories they contain, could be dangerous. Or at least that’s what the authorities – political, social or religious – want the readers to believe.

From dramatic court battles to bundles of books being burned in 1930s Berlin, impassioned attempts to censor the written word are nothing new, and restrictions continue across the world even today. 

According to the American Library Association (ALA), 531 materials – including books, magazines and databases – were subject to attempts at removal or restriction in the United States in 2018.

The ALA also identified five types of book censorship recorded in the US last year: vandalising pages, hiding resources, requiring parental permission to access content, removing materials and even – in one case – burning books. 

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In the early 1980s, the organisation launched Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read, which has since spread internationally. 

To mark the beginning of Banned Books Week 2019,  Al Jazeera explains the controversies surrounding some famous books that have faced censorship.

The Harry Potter series – JK Rowling

Reason for ban: Blasphemy

Harry Potter

The series has come under fire for prominently featuring magic [File: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters]

A literary sensation, the Harry Potter series has been enjoyed by millions of children and adults around the world since the first book hit the shelves in 1997.

However, the central role of magic in the stories – which chart boy-wizard Harry Potter’s battle against the evil Lord Voldemort – has ruffled feathers among some religious groups.

This year alone saw titles from the series banned from a Roman Catholic school in the US and burned by Polish priests.

While the priests cited biblical quotes condemning magic, the Reverend Dan Rehill of St Edward Catholic School in Tennessee said the books contained real spells that could cause harm if read. 

Animal Farm – George Orwell 

Reason for ban: Criticising Stalinism

George Orwell

A lifelong socialist, Orwell was a vocal critic of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin [File: AP Photo]

Orwell’s thinly-veiled criticism of Stalinism was unsurprisingly banned in the Soviet Union when it was published in 1945. 

The story, which replaces key figures of the Communist movement with farm animals seeking to overthrow their owners, was also banned by the Allied Forces as it was considered too controversial to publish during the Second World War.

It remains banned in Cuba and North Korea, both Communist states. In 1991, a theatre adaptation of the book was banned in Kenya due to concerns over its ridiculing authority.

The anthropomorphisation of animals, particuarly pigs, has also caused upset and led to the book being banned in the United Arab Emirates in 2002.

Misinterpreted as a criticism of all forms of socialism, the CIA funded a cartoon version of the story in 1955.

The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie 

Reason for ban: Blasphemy

Satantic Verses

The author’s effigy was burned at protests during the ‘Rushdie affair’ [File: Mohsin Raza/Reuters]

Less than 30 days after its publication in 1988, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses had been banned in India and burned on the streets of the United Kingdom.

But the controversy around the story, which challenges and, at times, appears to mock sensitive tenets of the Muslim faith, was just beginning.

In 1989, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa – a religious ruling ordering Muslims to kill the author. 

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Rushdie was forced into protective hiding for more than a decade, while bookshops were firebombed and his Japanese translator was murdered.

Others involved with the book narrowly escaped attempts on their lives. 

After Khomeini’s death in 1998, Iran reversed the fatwa and Rushdie now makes regular public appearances, although he continues to receive death threats. 

The bloody “Rushdie affair” as it is known, is considered by some to have foreshadowed the role identity politics now plays in shaping the modern world.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Reason for ban: Offensive content

Khaled Hosseini

Hosseini has said blanket bans of his work in schools do a ‘disservice’ to children [File: Evan Agostini/AP Photo]

The Kite Runner’s inclusion on high school curricula has been banned or challenged in five US states and was the fourth most challenged book in 2017, according to the ALA.

The story of boyhood friends Amir and Hassan coming of age in Afghanistan during the 1970s contains sexually explicit scenes and offensive language 

Its treatment of homosexuality, violence and its religious viewpoint have also raised concerns, with the ALA reporting fears the book could “inspire terrorism” and that it “promoted Islam“.

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In 2013, Hosseini acknowledged that the novel contains serious elements that parents and teachers should discuss with children before reading, but said that a flat-out ban “is doing the kids a disservice”.

“The book, I think, has served as a window to Afghanistan, as a window to that region of the world for the kids, and allowed them to feel connected to a part of the world that is so distant from their own,” he told the ALA Conference in 2013.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence 

Reason for ban: Obscenity

Lady Chatterley's Lover

 The book and its high-profile trial contributed to the relaxing of social mores in the UK [File: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images]

Perhaps the most famous case of a banned book in the UK, this story of a wealthy married woman’s affair with her working-class groundskeeper is credited with helping to usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. 

Lawrence’s explicit novel was privately published in Italy in 1928, before being picked up by Penguin Books in 1960.

The acquisition led to Penguin being tried under the Obscene Publications Act due to the book’s detailed descriptions of sexual scenes. Famous writers such as EM Forster gave evidence in the six-day trial.

Ultimately, the book was ruled to be “not obscene” and published a month later, with the spectacle of the trial arguably helping to boost sales. All  200,000 copies were sold on the first day. 

The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger 

Reason for ban: Obscenity 

The Catcher in the Rye

 Holden Caulfield, the book’s protagonist, [File: Amy Sancetta/AP Photo]

In the 1970s and 1980s, Salinger’s tale of teenage angst was the most-banned books in US high schools over concerns it could encourage rebellion among young people.

Over the course of the book, the protagonist, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, experiments with alcohol and prostitutes while struggling with feelings of alienation and anxiety.

Unease around the offensive language and sexual content in the story have frequently been raised, with groups pointing to the fact that it was originally written with an adult audience in mind.

Despite these concerns, the book has remained required reading in many US high schools, with some teachers hailing Caulfield’s relatability. It sells an estimated 250,000 copies in the US each year, according to the USA Today.

All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque

Reason for ban: Lack of patriotism

Book burning

The wartime classic was one of some 25,000 books burned in Berlin on May 10, 1933 [File: Keystone/Getty Images]

Remarque’s tale of trench warfare was one of many books engulfed by the flames of Nazi bonfires in the run-up to the Second World War.

The book polarised Germany when published in 1928. 

Some felt it portrayed German soldiers as cowardly and exaggerated the horrors of the First World War in order to support the author’s pacifist agenda. While others argued that the novel was an honest portrayal of the war, without patriotic embellishment.

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As an 18-year-old, Remarque had suffered injuries while serving on the Western Front. The realism he brought to the story helped it shift hundreds of thousands of copies in Germany, as well as the UK, France and the US. 

The lack of romanticism was out of step with Nazi ideology, however, and the title was one of some 25,000 books torched in Berlin on May 10, 1933. A film adaptation was also banned, following organised protests.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood – Marjane Satrapi 

Reason for ban: Upsetting imagery

Persepolis

Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical story came under fire for its frank depictions of life in post-revolutionary Iran [File: Gino Domenico/AP Photo]

This autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in Iran spans the country’s Islamic Revolution and the devastating effects of its war with Iraq as its narrator discovers boys, booze and punk rock.

In 2013, the book was banned in all public schools in Chicago. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the superintendent of the city’s public schools claimed Persepolis was “offensive, vulgar and promoted controversial racial and political issues”.

She also said that the graphic novel had depictions not suitable for young adolescents. The decision is thought to have been sparked by a half page of illustrations showing scenes of torture following the overthrow of the Shah.

Students and teachers protested the decision, checking out all library copies of the book and appearing on local radio and television programmes. 

The ban was later reversed.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Reason for ban: Obscenity

Lolita

Thanks to bans in other countries, Lolita’s US publication was preceded by a ‘fanfare of publicity’ [File: Keystone/Getty Images]

Lolita has been banned in several countries including France, Argentina, and New Zealand at various points since its publication in 1955.

In 1958, The New York Times wrote that the bans – particuarly by liberal France where the book was originally published under a press known for pornographic works – led to Lolita’s US publication being “preceded by a fanfare of publicity”.

The story of a middle-aged man’s infatuation with a young girl has delighted and disturbed readers in equal measure and is still considered by many to be one of the most controversial books of the 20th century. 

Though no longer banned, its inclusion in high school curricula is frequently challenged. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Reason for ban: Offensive language

Mark Twain

The use of racial slurs in Twain’s classic can be a challenge for modern readers [File: David Duprey/AP Photo]

Twain’s 1885 adventure classic has been a staple of US curricula for decades. 

However, the book has fallen out of favour with some modern readers who object to the racial slurs used towards the story’s African American characters.

Many of the characters speak in regional dialects of the US south and some modern editions have substitutedthe words “slave” or “servant” for a term Twain used in the book, now considered to be racist.

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In a sign of changing attitudes, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has come up against similar criticism and has been removed from reading lists in several US schools.

Critics of these bans have challenged the need to adjust historical works to modern sensibilities and warn that such action can warp children’s understanding of the past.

Obscene, unpatriotic, blasphemous: Banned books through time

Literature is a powerful thing. For many, it offers a window into the other worlds; an opportunity to be informed and entertained. But for some, books, and the stories they contain, could be dangerous. Or at least that’s what the authorities – political, social or religious – want the readers to believe.

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