We are nearing the end of Banned Books Week and realized that there have been so many titles in the past few years that have ruffled the feathers of elected officials, holy men, and her highness, Oprah. Some have been great, some have been horrible, and some just downright racist. We’re always curious about books that are deemed so dangerous that the public shouldn’t be able to read them. Although we would be taken aback if we saw a friend openly displaying Mein Kampf on her bookshelf, we think that with enough critical distance people can learn a lot from books that uncover the wicked underbelly of society. So read on, dear readers, and tell us what “dangerous books” you’ve read and enjoyed.
Seven Days in Rio by Francis Levy
Eric Obernauf, the publisher of Two Dollar Radio, writes, “The book is a satire that follows a sex tourist to an absurdist skewering of Rio de Janeiro. One of the great jokes of the book is that it compares psychoanalysts to prostitutes. Anyways, some government officials in Brazil didn’t get the joke and said they would demand an apology, even going so far as to write a letter to the US embassy.”
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
We featured Frey in our previous “Literary Outlaws” post because of his embellishment of details in his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Three years later, The Smoking Gun ran an article denouncing Frey for fabricating his criminal past. TSG writes, “The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond.” Frey apologized to Oprah soon after the article came out, but still attempted to defend himself, saying, “In order to get through the experience of the addiction, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was — and it helped me cope. When I was writing the book … instead of being as introspective as I should have been, I clung to that image.” Oprah wasn’t having it, though.
The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey
Which brings us to Frey’s latest contribution, The Final Testament. On his website, he writes, “My goal was to create a mythology, to tell a story, to make a work of art that made sense in a world where we know things that people, and writers, 2000 years ago could never have known or imagined. Whether I was able to do it or not will be determined by readers, and by time, and by history.” Marc Vernon at the Guardian wrote that it wasn’t shocking, just “shockingly bad.”
Sarah by JT Leroy
In 2000, Catherine Texier at The New York Times wrote about JT Leroy: “Does it matter that he is 20 years old? That he grew up in rural West Virginia and later on the streets of San Francisco? That he started publishing at 16, under the pseudonym Terminator? It does. And yet it shouldn’t.” She was right, because people were incredibly peeved when they found out that Leroy was actually Laura Albert, a 40-year-old woman who grew up in Brooklyn as the daughter of a playwright, and not as a wayward youth who grew up in West Virginia, turning tricks. In 2007, Albert was sued for fraud by a Antidote International Films, after they found out that Sarah wasn’t written by Leroy. Lesson learned: pseudonyms are hard to keep up in the digital age.
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
We still think Rushdie has always been a bit of a drama queen, but then again, we’ve never had a fatwa issued for our deaths before. On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme religious leader of Iran, proclaimed that Rushdie was persona non grata on this Earth for his portrayal of Muhammad in The Satanic Diaries. Our worst Valentine’s Days will likely never top Rushdie’s.
The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones
This book was so controversial that Random House scrapped it after it was supposed to be published in 2008. It tells the story of one of Muhammad’s young wives, Aisha, as she grows up in a harem-like household, vying for the attentions of the Prophet. Denise Spellberg, an Islamic scholar, writes, “The combination of sex and violence sells novels. When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about Aisha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales. If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to ‘move civilization forward,’ then they should read a novel that gets history right.” Salacious and poorly researched, you say? That’s best seller material!
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
We featured Eco’s new novel in our fall book preview, and we’re excited to read about a spy thriller that includes real-life anti-Semites, Freemasons, and nefarious Jesuit plotters. When it was released in Italian last year, there was an outcry from Very Important religious leaders in Rome who condemned the novel for its portrayal of the devout.
The Turner Diaries by Andrew MacDonald
“The Turner Diaries is probably the most widely read single book among far right extremists,” said Irwin Suall, the National Director of fact-finding for the Anti Defamation League. William Pierce wrote the book under a pseudonym (Andrew Macdonald) back in 1978, but it has been reprinted a number of times, and concerns a group of whites who start a violent revolution in order to rid the United States of people of color and whites who have defended or (gasp!) slept with people of color. It may even have influenced Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Oklahoma City building in 1995, and continues to be published by small presses (and distributed by German media giant Bertlesmann).
The Elementary Particles by Michel Houllebecq
No list of literary controversies is complete without Michel Houllebecq’s 2001 international hit, The Elementary Particles. After its publication, the author was sued by 4 different Islamic organizations for defamatory lines such as, “I know that Islam — by far the most stupid, false, and obfuscating of all religions — currently seems to be gaining ground, but it’s a superficial phenomenon.” Ouch.
The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand
Andrew Corsello at GQ writes about delving into Rand’s oeuvre: “There is the reading itself, which is one thing. And then there is the digesting, which is quite another. Overall, the experience eerily replicates that of devouring a family-size bag of Cheetos in a single sitting.” This 1964 essay collection is one of Rand’s best-selling books, topping the million mark in 2008, and it continues to be an annoying title cited by college kids who desperately want to be thought of as independent philosophers. Also, Coverspy recently spotted a certain female on the F train who wore a “high ponytail w/ black scrunchie” and sported a “big Louis Vuitton tote” with the book in hand. Do you really want to be in that group, son? No, no you don’t.
Deemed: Too paradoxical to merit serious discussion! (wrote Max Hocutt)