The Absurd Logic Behind Some of the Most Famous Banned Books


The history of book banning reflects the history of social fear. From political dissidence to obscenity to excessive realism, the reasons for literary censorship tend to reflect a residing (or self-appointed) authority’s narrow analysis on behalf of everyone apparently incapable of passing judgment for themselves. Although some censoring rationales simply dissipate with time, other explanations for a book’s unfitting nature remain too absurd to ignore. To coincide with Banned Books Week 2010, here’s a sample of classic books that were censored for particularly ridiculous reasons.

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)

Like most contentious fiction, Brave New World features a compelling cocktail of sex, drugs, and social satire. But, despite the book’s stunning originality, its objectors have been impressively (even hilariously) generic in their criticisms. It was banned in Ireland in 1932 for being, among other things, “anti-family” (because, you know, artificial sex hormones, sedatives, and porn are all the stuff of science fiction fantasy), and, as recently as 1993, parents unsuccessfully campaigned for it to be removed from a required reading list because it “centered around negative activity.”

A Light in the Attic (Shel Silverstein)

Thanks to books like The Giving Tree and multiple volumes of popular poetry, Shel Silverstein’s contribution to modern children’s literature is limitless. And yet, the witty writer has been attacked for his allegedly suggestive illustrations and immoral messages (i.e. “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes”). In 1986, a Wisconsin elementary school even claimed that, in addition to encouraging disobedience, A Light in the Attic‘s poems “glorified Satan, suicide, and cannibalism.”

Call of the Wild (Jack London)

Jack London wrote many heavily political books throughout his life — including genre-pioneering dystopian novel The Iron Heel and sociopolitical expose The People of the Abyss — but it was his early novel, Call of the Wild, that bore the brunt of his critics’ ire. Although the bestselling story of a domesticated dog returning to his primal instincts is not overtly political, government officials in Italy, Germany, and Yugoslavoa who opposed London’s socialist leanings had the book banned, burned, and even labeled “too radical.”

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

Never mind that The Grapes of Wrath was based on the actual historical movement of Dust Bowl-downtrodden migrants headed for California — Steinbeck’s best-selling epic was banned soon after publication because it apparently painted the Golden State in a less-than-golden light. The county board in Kern County — the region where the book’s fictional Joad family ends its westward odyssey — successfully voted to ban the book in 1939 after denouncing it as “a libel and a lie.” Yeah, and Dorothea Lange probably used photoshop.

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)

There’s a sad kind of irony in the fact that the most famous book to oppose literary censorship has itself been the victim of suppression. According to critics, one of Fahrenheit 451‘s most grave offenses is its use of the words “hell” and “damn” as well as its reference to a Christian Bible being burned. Despite their obvious contextual relevance, these narrative features were argued to be corrupting influences on society that are clearly deserving of condemnation.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

Lewis Carroll’s trippy subterranean fable features a litany of questionable elements — stoned caterpillars, schizophrenic tea party hosts, homicidal monarchs, and a wildly unjust judicial system — which makes it an easy target for criticism by over-protective parents the world over. But in 1931, the governor of Hunan Province, China, called for the book’s ban on grounds of what can best be described as species-ism, claiming: “animals should not use human language” and it is “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.”

Howl (Allen Ginsberg)

Obscenity accusations are a dime a dozen in the long legacy of banned books, but the trial surrounding Allen Ginsberg’s Howl proved to be a pivotal First Amendment case. Sure, the poem features references to drugs, vagrants, and sex of all varieties, but the whole brouhaha (trial, threats, social outcry, James Franco movie, and all) was actually focused on a single contentious line: “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.”

“The Lottery” (Shirley Jackson)

“The Lottery” remains a staple of high school English and American literature curriculums around the world, but the story’s haunting portrayal of pointless violence and authoritarian fear has stirred equal outcry — which is precisely its purpose. Although its initial publication in the New Yorker elicited angry hate mail, it was the Union of South Africa’s nation-wide ban of the story that prompted author Shirley Jackson to exclaim with pride that “they had at least understood [it].”

Black Beauty (Anna Sewell)

Robbing a generation of little girls of their equine-loving literary fantasies, the South African government also banned Black Beauty during Apartheid. Although the book advocates kindness and respect for all living creatures, it is believed that the government’s white National Party leaders elected to ban it because the title sounded like it was about a black woman, making this perhaps the best affirmation of that old don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover adage.

Silas Marner (George Eliot)

Although there are certainly ways to make teenagers enjoy classic literature, nothing works quite as well as a little reverse psychology. After finding that only one student had read Silas Marner according to a class assignment, Anaheim Union High School’s English department head decided to have the novel banned from the school entirely. The result proved to be even more effective than expected: “it was the only way to get students to read the damned thing…within weeks of banning it, every last one of [them] knew it by heart.”