Throughout our long history, there have been various books that have been banned by the masses or those in power, and even burned by angry mobs over the centuries. Some were banned for religious reasons, some for political motivations, and some for cultural agendas. As decades have passed and generations changed, these bans have mostly been lifted. But some bans remain or are returning, even in our “modern” times of the 21st century. Here then are 12 of the top banned books, 7 classic and 5 modern, that were forbidden at one time or another … and a few that surprisingly still are.
1. The Bible, by various authors, first published in the 1st Century AD
The Story: The Old Testament books of the Christian Bible detail the Creation of the Earth through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. The New Testament books detail the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the early history of Christianity via his many apostles.
Why was it banned? Not surprisingly, some atheist, Communist countries and strict Islamic nations have banned the Bible in modern times. But there have been many versions and translations of the Bible since it was first compiled by early Jews and Christians. Not to mention that some books within the early Bible did not make it into later versions. When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, several of the early gospels were banned by church leaders. The medieval Roman Catholic Church banned any translations of the Bible other than Latin Vulgate, even though it was itself translated from Kione Greek. Not surprising, Martin Luther’s translation into German was banned by the Vatican at the time of the Protestant Reformation. By the time the English “King James Version” was translated in 1611, it was recognized by Protestants and accepted by Catholics.
2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, published 1865
The Plot: A comical children’s book about a 7 year old girl named Alice and her dream of following a talking rabbit with a pocket watch, down a hole. There, she encounters an irrational world in which illogic reigns, not to mention various humans and other creatures of all shapes, colors, and sizes. It has never been out of print and is available in over 170 languages worldwide.
Why was it banned? In 1900, several U.S. schools prohibited the book, claiming that it alluded to certain “sexual fantasies.” Others claimed it diminished, in the eyes of young readers, the importance of authority figures. Later, after Disney’s 1951 animated Alice in Wonderland, the book became popular once again, and was met with apprehension by some parents. They believed that it encouraged the new Hippie drug culture with its references to hallucinogenic drug use. Carroll’s pun-filled work has nevertheless stood the test of time and been savored for its insightful critiques of both politics and society. It was made into a blockbuster film starring Johnny Depp in 2010.
3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, published 1884
The Plot: Huckleberry Finn is a young boy, the best friend of Tom Sawyer, who runs away from an abusive, alcoholic father and goes on a grand adventure downriver. He floats down the Mississippi River on a makeshift raft with a runaway slave named Jim during the pre-Civil War south. Together, they encounter mainly memorable characters before finally returning home.
Why was it banned? Though widely recognized as one of the Great American Novels, it nevertheless provokes ongoing debate over whether it is anti-racial OR reinforces racial stereotypes. In the 1950s, the NAACP complained about its frequent use of the N-word. It is used no less than 242 times by Mark Twain, leading some school administrators to brand it a bad, albeit accurate example of Southern slavery and racism. Some towns banned it immediately after publication as ‘coarse, irreligious and obsolete.’ This only increased the sales for Twain – much to the author’s amusement. It has been frequently banned, challenged, and reinstated in schools and libraries ever since, all the way to present time.
4. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, published 1925
The Plot: Hitler’s notorious autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) sold millions of copies under the German Nazi regime of the 1930s. In it, Hitler describes what he saw as the “Jewish peril” and conspiracy across Europe. He then goes on to outline his Fascist ideology, later adopted by the Nazi Party, as well as his plans for a new Germain Third Reich.
Why was it banned? After World War II, the new Germany government banned it out of a responsibility and respect for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Some argue that it should be de-banned – so as to release it of any symbol of power it might hold with modern Neo-Nazis. As you can image, Mein Kampf was banned in numerous European countries that had been invaded by the Nazis, but never in the U.S., though Jewish groups frequently opposed its sale. Amazon briefly banned the sale of it in 2020, only to reinstate it a few months later. Today, it’s available as free download on the internet. Perhaps it is best to allow it sold as an example for subsequent generations of absolute evil unleashed. The Nazi regime and Holocaust did more to discredit the book than any book ban.
5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, published 1939
The Plot: It follows the Joad family, dirt-poor evicted tenant farmers as they travel west from Oklahoma to California in the 1930’s. It details the devastating effects of the American Dust Bowl and the Great Depression on families. It was made into an award-winning Hollywood film in 1940 starring Henry Fonda. Today, this classic novel is on the list of required reading by many high school and college English programs.
Why was it banned? It faced opposition in the U.S. for depicting the “Communist” labor movement and supposedly exaggerating the despicable conditions in California’s migrant labor camps of the Great Depression. Steinbeck’s depiction was in fact so brutally honest, it was banned in several California counties, despite selling thousands of copies world-wide. Historians have confirmed that John Steinbeck’s portrayal was spot-on and true-to-life. Other U.S. schools and libraries up to the 1980’s banned the classic book on the grounds that it is “filth,” full of sexual references, vulgar language, and several characters who take the Lord’s name in vain. It other words, it contained real-life situations the schools wished to “protect” its students from.
6. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, published 1951
The Plot: Famed for being one of the most banned, censored and challenged books ever. It tells the story of a teenage rebel and anti-hero, a 17-year-old, depressed Holden Caulfield. After being expelled from his boarding school for fighting, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery in New York City. There he encounters a prostitute, and old girlfriend, and his sister Phoebe, before returning home to his parents. It popularized Holden’s frequently used term – ‘phonies.’
Why was it banned? Salinger’s novel has the interesting distinction of being one of the most banned and the most taught books in American English classes. It attracted criticism in the 50’s, 60s and 70s for “excessive vulgar language, sexual scenes, and a lack of concern for moral issues.” Its detractors saw it as causing everything from anarchy to suicides to Communism! Its defenders saw it as the definitive look at the joys, frustrations and tedium of typical teenage life. Numerous school libraries across the country banned it from their shelves and curriculum. What school boards failed to realize, is that banning a book from teenagers, due to its forbidden depiction of rebellion, just makes curious teens want to read it even more.
6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, published 1961
The Plot: Set in segregated Alabama in the 1930s, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic novel tells the story of a six year old white girl, nicknamed Scout, living in the deep South. Her father, Atticus Finch, is a white lawyer defending a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. The man is convicted by an all white, male jury and later killed while trying to escape.
Why was it banned? Several school boards and public libraries banned the classic due to profanity and use of the N-word. Others as late as the 1990’s claimed the book did damage to integration by representing a time when racism was accepted and institutionalized. The NAACP charged the book was unfit for junior high use due to its use of those racial slurs. They claimed it both exposed and promoted racial hatred and white supremacy. Some white school boards banned it as well, but for different reasons, because the book contains occasional profanity and adult themes such as intercourse, rape and incest. Free speech advocates have frequently gotten such bans reversed. It was made into a 1962 film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a role for which he won an Oscar.
8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published 1985
The Plot: In a dystopian, future republic called Gilead, Offred, is one of the Handmaids who lives a life of sexual servitude, producing children for the Commanders, the ruling class of men. Gilead is a patriarchal, totalitarian state that totally subjugates women. Offred has a husband and daughter, but is forced to be a Handmaid nonetheless. The story revolves around her 3rd assignment to a new Commander Waterford.
Why was it banned? School boards banned the book after complaints from parents that it contained vulgar language, was sexually explicit, and offensive to fundamental Christians. Other complaints from women groups stated that it condoned brutality towards, and mistreatment of, women. The true horror of the book isn’t so much the acts the characters commit, but how easily the masses were lulled into accepting such an unthinkable, misogynistic regime as perfectly acceptable. The concept of toxic masculinity and patriarchal societies are back in the forefront of today’s news. The book was adapted into a 1990 movie and the current popular miniseries streaming on Hulu. starring actress Elizabeth Moss.
9. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, published 1988
The Plot: The Satanic Verses is inspired in part by the life of the Prophet Muhammad. It tells the story of two men, Indian expatriates, living in England. They are miraculously saved in a plane crash and take on mystical qualities as they struggle to piece their lives back together. It is infused with Islamic culture and the men’s inabilities to cope with Western influences. Dream sequences relay a fictional life of the Prophet Muhammad.
Why was it banned? Few authors have faced more outright hatred than Indian author Salman Rushdie. The novel inspired utter loathing from the Muslim community for its perceived blasphemous treatment of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. The book sparked riots across the world and is banned in many Muslim countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Qatar, Indonesia, South Africa, and India. The book was burned in the streets around the Islamic world. This forced Rushdie to limit his public appearances and to move homes frequently, all the time employing bodyguards. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni issued a fatwa or religious death sentence on the author for blasphemy against Islam. As a result, Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding for an entire decade.
10. The Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling, first published 1997
The Plot: Harry Potter is a British orphan who discovers on his 11th birthday that he is in fact a wizard; and is sent away to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Scotland. Over 7 novels, each relaying one of Harry’s years at Hogwarts, he fights the evil Lord Voldemort under the tutelage of Headmaster Dumbledore. The novels single handedly revitalized the reading of paper books amongst children around the world.
Why was it banned? This hugely popular series has faced opposition from parents and school boards on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. They claimed the stories were too violent for kids (some characters died), and portrayed Harry as a rule-breaker who willfully disobeys authority figures. Parents objected to the promotion of pagan witchcraft and evil without the counterbalance of any religion, Christian or otherwise. Why wasn’t there a chapel or pastor in Hogwarts? It has stood the test of time and been accepted as a fictional children’s story of a boy hero in a battle between good and evil. The series has been adapted into 8 successful feature films starring Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter.
11. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, published 2003
The Plot: Robert Langdon is an academic symbologist who is asked to consult on a mysterious murder in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. After much adventure, he solves a series of complex clues and stumbles onto a forbidden discovery. Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child. Their descendant, a female companion of his, lives today and is in fact the true Holy Grail.
Why was it banned? Dan Brown’s best-seller was extremely popular and outsold Harry Potter. It was nevertheless banned over its “insulting,” though entirely fictional, suggestion that Jesus Christ was not celibate, married and had sex with Mary Magdalene, resulting in a child. Book shop owners and librarians across the country were ordered by their local churches to take copies off their shelves as being highly offensive to Christianity. It also portrays the Catholic Church’s highest leaders in a very poor light, and as belittling the role of women over time. The book has sold 80 million copies worldwide was made into a blockbuster 2006 film starring Tom Hanks, with several sequels since.
12. Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, published 2011
The Plot: This notorious best-seller, the first in a very successful trilogy, is about the relationship between naïve literature student Anastasia Steele, who interviews with a wealthy, handsome and enigmatic businessman, Christian Grey. They enter into a relationship where she discovers and accepts his secret passion for sexual domination and bondage. The book is quite graphic in describing their numerous liaisons.
Why was it banned? Cities and towns removed it from library shelves in many U.S. counties, because it contained offensive language and was seen as far too salacious. It graphically portrays sadomasochism as a desirable act in explicitly pornographic scenes between Anastasia and Grey. Many library systems were later forced to reverse their decision, however due to the high volume of requests for the book from predominantly middle-aged female readers. It remains banned in several African and southeast Asian Muslim countries. All three books in the trilogy were made into moderately successful Hollywood films.
So there you have it – 7 Classic and 5 Modern books that have been decried, banned, and sometimes burned. Yet quite often, they stand the test of time, due to their high quality and/or overall popularity by the masses. Even today, in the modern 21st century, some conservative school boards continue to ban books, particular LGBTQ+ books, from their libraries. History has a nasty habit of repeating itself. So if you have not already, I hope you will consider reading at least one of the tomes on this list to expand your horizons into the daring realm of history’s Banned Books.