10 famous banned books that everyone should read

Every now and then, a book is published which is either ahead of its time or with ideas so revolutionary that it forms a threat to the existing status quo.

Whether it's obscenity, dissidence or just some misunderstanding in the interpretation, these books are banned from the eyes of the public. But often, they resurface years later and in hindsight, they often turn out to be timeless classics. Here's our pick of the 10 most interesting banned books that everyone should read:

Even though we live in the age of freedom of thought and expression, the power of the written word can sometimes be overwhelming. Books get banned all the time and have been getting banned for centuries. The reasons could be many. Some countries like the UK have a large tolerance for constitutes as obscene and mostly draw the line at child pornography. Other slightly more sensitive cultures could ban a book for inciting hate speech, promoting immoral values, sedition, or even just depicting talking animals.

Whatever the reason may be, many of these famous banned books resurface, often as timeless classics. And reading them in that light- of being so powerful that they got banned- can be a very impactful experience. So here’s our pick of the 10 most interesting banned books that you should definitely read.

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll leave out the usual suspects like The Catcher in the Rye, Doctor Zhivago, Lolita, and Ulysses - which has been called the greatest novel ever written but is very high-brow stuff and almost impenetrable for the average reader— so we can focus on some of the more lesser known and approachable works.

1. Howl - Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is arguably the single most important poem to shape the voice of poetry in the 20th century. Ginsberg was the prophet of the ‘Beat Generation’, a group of poets, writers, intellectuals and thinkers in the 50’s and 60’s who wrote from the underbelly of society, stripping reality to its bare bones, seeking for ‘the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night’ (in Ginsberg’s own words from Howl). Ginsberg, an open homosexual, published Howl in 1956, during a largely conservative time in the United States.

At this point in his life, Ginsberg had already traveled widely, been kicked out of school for writing obscenities on a window, taken many drugs, been arrested, graduated from Columbia University with a literature degree, come out as gay, had a visionary experience involving the British poet William Blake, undergone therapy at a psychiatric institute, lived with a mentally unstable mother and mingled with the most famous writers of the day - like Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs (who also features on this list!). All of these experiences heavily influenced Howl, a long modern epic poem written in three parts.

Ginsberg’s voice is earnest and blunt. He leaves nothing out - the drug abuse, the obscenity, madness, alienation and the truth of the times. One year after its publication, in 1957, 520 copies of the book were seized by San Francisco Customs for obscenity, when the copies were imported from the publisher in England. This lead to the infamous obscenity trial in 1957, where a landmark decision was arrived at, after which the poem was declared as not obscene. The court trial, along with some insights into Ginsberg’s life were beautifully captured in the 2009 film Howl, starring James Franco as Ginsberg. Here is a clip from the movie where Franco reads out one of the most riveting passages from the poem.

2. Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm - George Orwell

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This one’s a double whammy. 1984 and Animal Farm, both George Orwell’s most famous works were banned at different points through history. This sort of makes George Orwell the political bad-boy of the literary world, a prophet who saw way ahead of his time to shape the future of dystopian literature as we know it.

Orwell finished writing Animal Farm, his masterpiece of political allegory in 1943. Having seen not one, but two World Wars during his lifetime, Orwell had experienced the tragedy and disillusionment of war first-hand. On the surface, Animal Farm was a story about how the animals of Manor Farm overthrow their human overlords and attempt to form an egalitarian society. Delve just a little deeper, and it is obvious that the book is a biting allegory of Stalinism in the USSR, and a sharp commentary on politics that equates totalitarianism and corrupt capitalism and presents them as two sides of the same coin.

Orwell (far right in the back row) served in the Home Guard during WWII (Image Source: ucl.ac.uk)

For two years after its completion, no publisher in the UK would publish Animal Farm because the USSR was an important ally through the Second World War. When the book was finally published in 1945 after the war ended, it was immediately banned in the USSR and other communist countries. But wait! There’s more. When the 50’s rolled around and the Cold War was in full swing, the CIA funded an animated film version, with a different ending, to be distributed throughout the world as a part of their campaign against communism around the world.

The book was banned again in the United Arab Emirates in 2002 for containing allegedly anti-Islamic text and images, especially anthropomorphic pigs that could talk. The book continues to be banned in Cuba and North Korea (no surprises there!) and is still censored in Vietnam. But in the rest of the world, especially the English speaking parts, the work is a classic and is often part of school and college curriculum.

Five years after Animal Farm was published came the even more controversial Nineteen Eighty-Four. The novel was a game-changer, forever changing the landscape of political and satirical works of fiction. The novel is set in future Great Britain, which has evolved into a massive superstate called Oceania. The setting is quintessentially dystopian, set in a world with mass surveillance, where ‘Big Brother’ is always watching you. Concepts introduced in the book like doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the infamous ‘2+2=5’ (which even inspired a Radiohead song!) are commonly used today and the internet is full of references to them.

Even Apple paid a tribute to the book in their 1984 Superbowl commercial, which you can check out below.

The book was banned immediately on publication in the USSR because Joseph Stalin understood that it was a satire based on his leadership. It was almost banned in the US and the UK in the 60’s during the height of the Cold War too. The book remains one of the most legally challenged in several parts of the world for its radical outlook and ideas. Only after the fall of communism in Russia in 1991 was the book allowed to be published after thorough re-editing.

A propaganda poster from Soviet Russia featuring Joseph Stalin, on whom 'Big Brother' might have been based. (Image Source: Pinterest)

Few books have had such a large impact on the global political scenario. Fewer books have inspired such a range of works in media, be it print, cinema or otherwise. The Matrix, V of Vendetta, Equilibrium, Mad Max, Black Mirror - practically any dystopian work you can think of borrows from Nineteen Eighty-Four in some way.

3. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

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If Orwell’s dystopia is one where the fears of a totalitarian regime constantly hang over your head, Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World presents a frightening vision of a future where “better living through science” has been taken a step or two too far. It’s as if the two authors are competing to see whose hellish vision of the future is better! In Brave New World, Huxley creates a seemingly Utopian world, a place where people live without the threat of violence, poverty, or hunger.

But all that quickly disappears as the real underlying dystopia is exposed page by page. Huxley’s world is one in which everyone must consume drugs to stave off depression. Children are no longer born naturally but created in laboratories, engineered and trained to embrace the strict caste system of the society. Movies have been replaced with “feelies,” the sole purpose of which is to significantly stimulate the senses, and Henry Ford is revered as God! If that’s not radical enough to get it banned, there are graphic descriptions of sex and violence that ultimately culminate to form the ultimate dystopian horror-fest!

Aldous Huxley, who was once Orwell's French teacher, wrote a letter thankinghim for sending a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Image Source: Twitter)

The book was banned in Ireland and Australia immediately on being published for themes of sexually inappropriate content of all things! Even as recently as the 90’s, the book has been challenged multiple times to be removed from school libraries and other institutions. It remains one of America's most challenged books of all time. All said and done, the book is indeed a classic and one that you must read if you are looking to challenge the way the world is perceived.

4. The Lorax - Dr. Seuss

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Yes, this is the same Lorax you’re thinking about - the children’s book! You’d be surprised how many children’s books keep getting banned around the world. First, a quick summary: The Lorax is about a woodland creature that lives among the trees. Another creature of the forest, the Once-ler, cuts down trees and uses them for multiple uses. The Lorax quickly realizes that the Once-ler is killing the forest and so persuades him to stop cutting down trees. Simple enough right?

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Apparently not. The book was banned in California in 1989 because it allegedly portrays the foresting industry in a negative light. In a state where logging and the foresting industry was one of the biggest sources of revenue at the time, the state didn’t want children to protest it. So much for trying to teach kids to be eco-friendly! But all this didn't stop Hollywood from turning The Lorax into a full-length animated feature film in 2012. Here's the trailer:

5. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller

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We’ve all heard of the phrase ‘a Catch-22 situation’, a paradoxical situation from which there is no escape because of contradictory rules. The phrase even exists in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such was the impact of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel of the same name, easily the most fractured and hilarious war novel ever written. While previous war novels like All Quiet on the Western Front romanticized war with a solemn grace, Heller flipped the norm on its head with his icy, satirical style rife with irony and humor.

The book was banned by a school board in Ohio in 1972, which refused to allow the book to be taught in high school English classrooms. Soon after, several other schools followed and it was banned in many states across the US. The issue eventually ended up in court, where the ban was officially over-ruled.

A comic depicting a typical Catch-22 situation. (Image Source: blogs.mcgill.ca)

Over time, Catch-22 has become one of the defining novels of the twentieth century. It presents an utterly unsentimental vision of war, stripping all romantic pretenses away from combat, replacing visions of glory and honor with a kind of nightmarish comedy of violence, bureaucracy, and paradoxical madness. Although this approach to was has become commonplace today (think Dr. Strangelove or Tropic Thunder), back when it was published, it was revolutionary.

In the wake of World War II, which most Americans believed was a just and heroic war, Catch-22 was like a swift kick in the cojones! It proved almost prophetic about both the Vietnam War, a conflict that began a few years after the novel was originally published, and the sense of disillusionment about the military that many Americans experienced during the war.

6. Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

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America’s favorite post-modern novelist Kurt Vonnegut published Cat’s Cradle in 1963. Although the title sounds mostly harmless, it’s no sign of what’s in the book. Vonnegut is a champion of combining the horrifying and the humorous. He will show you the darkest humanity has to offer and will find a punchline that’ll make you smirk if not roll into an uncontrollable fit of confusing laughter!

One of the 'Calypsos' from the 'Book of Bokonon' in Cat's Cradle gives us a peek at Vonnegut's strange sense of humor. (Image Source: Pinterest)

Cat’s Cradle is easily his most prophetic work, an allegory that starts on the brink of doom when a mysterious weapon called ‘Ice-9’, which has the power to freeze all the water on the planet and cast it into apocalyptic doom falls into the hands of a dictator of a small, mostly primitive island called 'San Lorenzo'. ‘Ice-9’ of course, is a metaphor for the nuclear bomb and the book is as relevant today as it was when written during the peak of the Cold War when the threat of nuclear war hung over Earth’s head.

One of the tenets of Bokononism, the mock-religion that Vonnegut invented. (Source: Pinterest)

But what got it banned? Apart from some occasional profanity, and a few jokes that might be slightly hard to stomach, Cat’s Cradle has a scathing satire of religion. Vonnegut creates a fictional religion called Bokononism, a religion that openly admits to being nothing more but a comfort blanket for the masses who cannot come to terms with their own death. Exactly the opposite of Christianity. The prophet ‘Bokonon’ suggests that you live by a set of ‘foma’ - a word Vonnegut created and defined as ‘harmless untruths’ - that make you brave and kind and happy and healthy!

A passage from Cat's Cradle satirizing the creation of man. (Source: Pinterest)

This apparently didn’t go down to well with the school board of Strongsville School in Ohio, which banned the book in 1972 (yes, it’s the same school that banned Catch-22 the same year). Other schools have also challenged the book, but the court overruled the ban in 1976.

7. Naked Lunch - William S Burroughs

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Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs, was originally published in 1959 provides a fractured account of American homosexual and drug cultures in the 1950s. It follows the adventures of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases from the U.S. to Mexico and other places. The story comes from Burroughs’ own experiences and his addiction to drugs - mostly heroin and morphine. The book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles in 1962 and several European publishers were harassed.

The controversy even resulted in an infamous 1965 obscenity trial taking issue with the book’s inclusion of child murder and acts of pedophilia, but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. It was declared that the book did not violate obscenity statutes and ruled it to have 'some social value’.

Naked Lunch is Burroughs’ signature work and considered today one of the pillars of American literary history despite being quite controversial with subjects such as drug use and homosexuality. It is also included in Time magazine’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”. A film adaptation was made by David Cronenberg in 1991.

8. Spycatcher - Peter Wright

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This is the first and only non-fiction title in out list and for a very good reason. With Spycatcher, first published in 1985, retired British intelligence agent Peter Wright laid the British intelligence agency bare and naked for all the world to see. In this account of his time working as a ‘spycatcher’, Wright reveals assassination plots, joint conspiracies with the CIA and unethical information-gathering techniques among many other foul plays by the MI5. Obviously, the book was instantly banned by the British government on its release in 1987, but since the ruling was in a British court, it remained available in Scotland, Australia and America and went on to sell 2 million copies, making it a best seller.

Very few non-fiction accounts attempt to do what Wright did with fearless truth in the face of tumultuous times. If you are the kind who enjoys a good James Bond film, you should read Spycatcher to get an idea of how far the reality of it all is in a messy, gritty world of lies, deception and danger.

9. The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie

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Even before the publishing of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988, the British writer was no stranger to controversy. But the ban on Satanic Verses has to be one of the single most violent reactions to the publishing of a book in modern history.

The book, in Rushdie’s unique style of magic-realism, is inspired in part by the life of Prophet Muhammad. Although the book was highly acclaimed on publication in the UK, being nominated for The Man Booker Prize, the backlash it received from Islamic nations and leaders was staggering. Thousands of Muslims accused Rushdie of blasphemy.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the former supreme leader of Iran issued a ‘fatwa' ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie after the publishing of Satanic Verses. (Image Source: Wikipedia)

At the peak of the controversy, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the former supreme leader of Iran issued a ‘fatwa' ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. The author had even received threats before publishing the book, but he was no stranger to those. Later in an interview, Rushdie said, "I expected a few mullahs would be offended, call me names, and then I could defend myself in public... I honestly never expected anything like this.”

10. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

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If you’re a fan of irony, you’re going to love this one! Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury is a dystopian novel set in an American future where books are outlawed and "firemen" burn any that are found. The tagline of the book explains the title: "Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns…"

This cover design concept by graphic artist Elizabeth Perez for the book fittingly has a matchstick planted in the cover whereas the spine of the book doubles up as a striking surface for the match. (Source: Pinterest)

Although the book has never found itself on the wrong side of the law, it has been challenged, banned and censored by several school boards in the US. So basically, they banned a book that’s all about banning and burning books! Well done guys! The most ridiculous of these incidents occurred in 1992 when a school in California gave copies of Fahrenheit 451 to students with all "obscene" words blacked out! But the parents contacted the local media and succeeded in reinstalling the uncensored copies. Looks like Californian parents are just too cool for school!

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