“When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” – George R.R. Martin
The saying goes that the pen is mightier than the sword. Apparently, authorities throughout history have agreed – the banning of words is older than printed books and in the United States, the first book banning occurred in 1637, 139 years before the country even existed.
From politically subversive texts to religious tracts that authorities felt threatened the majority rule to books deemed sexually inappropriate for young minds, the practice of banning speech, thoughts and words has always been a tool for political control. Those who defend the censorship of certain books may claim they are being protective, but the protection is usually of themselves.
The history of book banning and censorship is far from fully written: it continues throughout the world. Sometimes it takes the form of government bans, sometimes it comes from independent groups using threats or actual violence against writers. As you will see from the list below, the practice of trying to ban words is usually fruitless. Readers throughout history have found ways of reading what is forbidden, knowing that what is true cannot be held back and that the free exchange of ideas is a key to human progress.
Banned Books Throughout History
Below is a list, in order of when they were published, with an explanation of where and why they were banned.
Aristophanes’ famous play about an Athenian woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War is one of Greek culture’s greatest gifts to the world. Ironically, the government of Greece banned the play in 1967, because of a perceived anti-war message.
- Banned in the USSR from 1926 – 1956
- Banned in Ethiopa in 1986 (ban was later lifted)
- Owning or distributing the bible is currently restricted in multiple countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, China, Comoros, Djibouti, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.
- Chaucer’s collection of stories was banned in the United States in 1873. While it was legal to posess a copy, it was illegal to MAIL it in the U.S., because it was found to violate the from the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act (Comstock Law), which banned the sending or receiving of books that contained “obscene,” “filthy,” or “inappropriate” material. The Comstock laws were effectively repealed by the United States Supreme Court in 1983.
- Author John Cleland was in debtor’s prison when he wrote this book – hard up for money, he may have decided to write what sells: sex. Considered the first pornographic novel, Fanny Hill is one of the most banned books in history. It was first banned in the United States in 1821 for obscenity, and was re-banned in 1963. It is the last book ever officially banned in the U.S.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – Published in 1818
- Mary Shelley’s classic about a scientist who plays God by creating a human-like creature was banned in Apartheid-era South Africa for containing “obscene and indecent” material.
- Banned in Turkey from 1848 until 2013, for promoting Communism.
- In the mid-20th century, owning the Communist Manifesto or other communist literature was dangerous in many Western countries and could lead to loss of employment, investigation by government officials or even charges of treason.
- The beloved children’s classic was banned in China in 1931, for portraying animals as having the same complexity as human beings. Chinese censors warned of the “disastrous” effects of teaching children to have the same respect for animals as humans.
- The European dictatorships of the 1920’s and 1930’s, most notably in Yugoslavia and Italy, banned Jack London’s classic because of the author’s supposed sympathy for socialism. In 1933, Germany’s Nazi party banned (and held mass burnings of) the book for being “too radical”.
- Sinclair Lewis’ examination of religious hucksterism is widely considered one of the best American satirical novels of the 20th century. But when it was published, it was banned in cities throughout the United States. Perhaps the satiric portrayal of evangelical Christianity hit too close to home – it was denounced from church pulpits all over North America.
Orwell finished writing his most widely read novel in 1943, while the world was at war. He could not find a publisher in Great Britain willing to publish it, because of its criticism of Russia, an ally of Britain. Once published, it was immediately banned in most communist countries. It remains a banned book in the United Arab Emirates, because its talking pig character is deemed “un-Islamic.” It is also still banned in North Korea and censored in Vietnam, probably because of its perceived criticism of socialism.
- White’s classic about the friendship between a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte has sold over 45 million copies and has been translated into 23 languages. It has also been repeatedly banned. A school in Yorkshire, England banned it in 2003, citing its potential to offend Muslim students. The ban was lifted after The Muslim Council of Britain formally requested an end to the “well-intentioned but misguided” policy.
- In the United States in 2006, a Kansas school district decided that talking animals were “unnatural” and “blasphemous” and briefly banned Charlotte’s Web.
The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry by Arthur Butz – Published in 1977
Electrical engineer Arthur Butz’s extremely controversial book, which attempts to refute the idea that millions of Jews were exterminated during the Second World War is banned in Canada as hate literature. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police destroyed copies of the book as recently as 1995.
The publication of The Satanic Verses caused a firestorm of protest in parts of the Islamic world when it was first published. Author Salman Rushdie received numerous death threats, including one issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. The book has been banned on the grounds that it blasphemes Islam for over 20 years in 15 countries: Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand.
Dan Brown’s 2003 mystery about secret societies, art and the Catholic church was a sensation when it was first published in 2003. In 2004, Catholic leaders in Lebanon deemed it “offensive to Christianity” and banned it.
As we reported in 2014, the effort to ban books in the United States continues in school systems and libraries around the country. For more information about books that are partially banned or under threat of ban and information about how you can stand up for threatened books, please visit the American Library Association’s Banned Books Website.