In Focus

Book bans: five infamous cases

Challenges to titles on library shelves and school syllabuses increasing at ‘unprecedented’ rate

Calls for books to be banned or censored have reached an “unprecedented” level across the US, charities that protect freedom of speech have warned.

A string of Republican-majority states have tried to ban books “pertaining to race and LGBTQ+ issues” from classrooms”, amid pushes to prevent teachers from discussing homosexuality or “the modern-day impact of historic racism in the US”, said The Guardian’s New York-based reporter Adam Gabbatt. 

Suzanne Nossel of rights organisation Pen America told the paper that both “the ferocity of this wave” of “education gag orders” and the “polarisation in our country” was “unprecedented”, adding: “There is a very potent and intense struggle under way about what the future of our society looks like.”

Latest tracking from the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom – which monitors challenges to library, school and university materials – revealed 330 challenges between September and November last year, up from 156 in the whole of 2020.

“I've worked for this office for 20 years, and we've never had this volume of challenges come in such a short time,” the charity's Deborah Caldwell-Stone told Axios

While the number of such challenges is soaring, the history of book bans stretches back many decades, in both the US and across the rest of the world. Here are five of the most infamous cases in recent history.

1

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas’s debut novel tells the story of a teenager who witnesses the police shooting of her best friend, and was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2009 shooting of African-American man Oscar Grant. The novel spent a “remarkable 38 weeks” at the top of The New York Times best sellers list and garnered “massive praise” following its 2017 release, reported Vulture. The story was later adapted into a hit Netflix film of the same name.  

But the book was also banned from a string of school libraries and curriculums amid claims that it promoted an “anti-police message” and was “pervasively vulgar”, “and because of drug use, profanity, and offensive language”, according to the American Library Association. Latest tracking by the charity found that The Hate U Give was among the top ten most-challenged books in the US in 2017, 2018 and 2020.

2

Maus by Art Spiegelman

First published as a serialisation from 1980 to 1991 in avant-garde magazine Raw, the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel tells the story of the author’s relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor, and depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.

Despite winning critical praise, Maus has been challenged for being “anti-ethnic” and “unsuitable for younger readers”. In the run-up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month, the McMinn County School Board in Tenessee voted “unanimously” to remove the book from the curriculum,  reported NPR. The school board was said to have objected to “eight curse words and nude imagery of a woman, used in the depiction of the author's mother's suicide”.

Spiegelman told CNN that the ban was “absurd” and “myopic”, adding: “They’re totally focused on some bad words that are in the book. I can’t believe the word ‘damn’ would get the book jettisoned out of the school on its own, but that’s really where the genuine focus seems to be.”

3

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Few novelists “have faced more blatant detestation for a piece of work” than Salman Rushdie, whose 1988 book The Satanic Verses tells the story of “two men infused with the Islamic culture and their (in)abilities to cope with Western influences”, said Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The novel’s publication inspired “outright loathing from a majority of the Muslim community for its alleged blasphemous treatment” of a character modelled after the Prophet Mohammad. A bounty was placed on Rushdie’s head by Iran’s then supreme leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, forcing the author “to drastically limit his public appearances and to move frequently from residence to residence, all the time being accompanied by bodyguard”, Britannica continued.

The book was banned in multiple countries, including India (Rushdie's birthplace), Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Pakistan. 

4

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Henry Miller’s “sprawling masterpiece” was first published by a French publisher of soft pornography, Obelisk Press, in 1934 and “set a new gold standard for graphic language and explicit sexuality”, The Observer’s then literary editor Robert McCrum wrote in 2012.

Miller originally intended to call his novel “Crazy Cock”, and its themes “shook US censorship and inflamed American literary sensibility to its core”, said McCrum. The book would remain “banned for a generation, by which time it had become part of postwar cultural folklore, smuggled into the US wrapped in scarves and underwear”. 

After the US ban on Tropic of Cancer was finally lifted in 1961, the book was legally published there. But the move triggered more than 60 obscenity lawsuits against booksellers in states across the country, before the Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that the novel was not obscene. 

5

Ulysses by James Joyce

The post-modernist classic, which turns 100 this year, “is now central to the literary canon and features on university literature courses around the world”, wrote Rachel Potter, a professor of modern literature at East Anglia University, in an article on The Conversation. But Joyce’s book was “banned as obscene before it was first published as a complete novel” and was widely “regarded as a work of perversion” for many decades. 

First published in instalments in the US literary magazine The Little Review, the novel triggered a legal challenge in 1920 by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, over a chapter featuring the main character, Leopold Bloom, masturbating on a beach while gazing at a 17-year-old girl. The magazine editors were “taken to court and fined for publishing an obscene work”, a ruling that prohibited the publication of Ulysses in the US, Potter explained. The ban remained in place until 1934.

The novel was also banned in other countries, including in the UK until the mid-1930s, for its “explicit sexuality and graphic depiction of bodily functions”, said Britannica. 

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