Book banning is a widespread phenomenon. There is hardly a society outside of the primitive hunter/gatherer category that has not engaged in some form of censorship. Whether it meant erasing names and incidents from the stone monuments of the ancient River Valley civilizations, or the mass book burnings of the United States and British Post Offices, it seems to be a feature common to most, if not all, human societies. For the collector, banned books is an interesting and varied field. Throughout history there have been numerous reasons for banning either a single book, or a category of books. Only in the most general sense can book banning be broken down into areas. Books have been banned, not because of what they said, but because a despot didn’t like the author on a personal level. Books have been banned to protect publishers within a certain country or area, much like any other tariff. So, in categorizing banned books, there is only a general sort of outline, with blurred lines. For the collector, banned books is an interesting and varied field.
As a purely general classification, we can break down the motives for book banning into four areas, which are by no means separate. Books have been banned as heretical in the context of their society’s religious structure. While this would seem a separate area, it easily crosses over to books that are banned because of their politics or their concepts of society. Savanarola’s work, for example, was banned as heretical, and yet it was his political and social reforms in Florence that formed the basis of arguments for the banning and burning of his writings. Obscenity forms a further field, though it is really a sub-category of societal book banning. Books that offend the sexual mores of a society often find themselves in a bonfire.
For a collector, this leaves four overlapping fields in which to form collections: Religious, Societal, Political and Sexual. The collection can then be organized in different ways. It can focus on first editions of banned books, or on the first banned or suppressed edition. For example, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions , whichhad been banned in France, was printed and circulated for almost a century before being banned by U.S. postal authorities. One might focus a collection on either the original French edition, or on the English translation. A completeist might want to have both. And for many, any edition of the book will do.
Also each category has sub-divisions that can form a focus for a collection. One might collect books banned because of an offense to any single religion, or focus on books banned due to their inclusion/discussion of homosexuality. Below I have tried to provide certain “keystone” books to give collectors places to start in each major area.
Collecting Books Banned on Religious Grounds
Nearly every “holy” book ever written has been banned, at one point or another, by societies that don’t accept the religion it forms the basis of. The Bible, the Koran, the Kama-Sutra, Tao Teh King , and just about any other “holy” book has been confiscated and burned. In some societies, they still are. So any collection of religious books is by its very nature, a collection of banned books. Outside of basic books in religion, there are many books that offend a religion, or were at one time basic books of religious dogma for a religion that is no longer in the mainstream. Here are ten to start with:
1. Pistis Sophia & The Nag Hammedi Library: Pistis Sophia is actually a series of fragments, not a complete book. It is almost a catalogue of Gnostic works that were so persecuted that only fragments of them exist in the modern world. The works that make up Pistis Sophia were banned throughout both Europe and Asia from the second through the sixteenth centuries and, in some places, up into the nineteenth. The Nag Hammedi Library, a collection of Gnostic holy books was discovered in 1948, and fleshes out the fragments that make up Pistis Sophia . As a collector, you might want it as both reference and as copies of the whole work. A sub-category here might be “Christian Heresies.”
2. Thais by Arius was banned by the first Council of Nicea. The controversy of the Trinity was a vital issue in the Council, and Bishop Arius the leading exponent of the Trinity being polytheistic. Thais would become a very important part of history as Arian missionaries converted Germanic tribes, such as the Goths, to their brand of Christianity. Again, a Christian heresy.
3. A Guide of the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides was banned in Jewish communities from the beginning of the thirteenth century to as late as the nineteenth. At the instigation of French rabbis, Catholic Dominicans confiscated and burned copies in 1233. The objection to it was that it injected Greek/Hellenistic thought into the Jewish religion. The Guide could, therefore, be classed as Jewish heresy.
4. Tuhafut al-Tuhafut by Averroes, a Muslim contemporary of Maimonides who would face the same problem in the Muslim community, as well as become a heretical work in Medieval Christian Europe. So here is the cock’s crow of Islamic heresy.
5. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin set up a series of bannings across the spectrum of religion. The central point in most religions, was that God created man. Darwin’s theories undercut this belief. The clash of science and religion is a further sub-category for the collector. No doubt many books going back into antiquity have been banned because of it. In the modern world one of the first was:
6. On the Infinite Universe and Worlds by Giordano Bruno which challenged both the Aristotelean cosmology of scholasticism and the view of Earth as the center of the Universe which lead to his imprisonment in 1592, and all of his works being placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1603, where they remained until 1966.
7. Popul Vuh, an ancient Mayan sacred text was first burned by Pedro de Alvarado, under orders from Hernando Cortez. It continued to circulate underground as fragments, much as was the case with Pistis Sophia. An unabridged translation of these fragments was published in 1985, translated by Dennis Tedlock.
8.The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis with its unorthodox view of Christ has been banned off and on since its publication in 1953. Kazantzakis was excommunicated from the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1954 because of it. A modern representative of Christian heresy.
9. The Protocol of the Learned Elders of Zion by Sergey Nilus has been banned since the Second World War in many places because it is overtly anti-Semitic. So Judaism has its modern censorship campaign.
10. The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie sets up in the tradition of Averroes, an Islamic heresy that not only sees the book burned, but a price put on the head of the author in 1989.
Collecting Books Banned on Political Grounds
Politics has always been a fruitful field for censorship. It takes no more than a satirical swipe at a despot to get a book banned. And, if an author opposes the political structure of those who run his country, he all but begs to be censored. Criticizing those in power, philosophies that run counter to the current system, and exposes’ of political wrongdoing have all felt the bite of the censor. Here are ten to get started on:
1. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli had the bad taste to expose the cynical despotism and overt mechanizations of politicians. The Holy See, then a political power, placed it on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1563, where it spent the next four centuries. It is one of the most censored books even today.
2. Areopagitica by John Milton was a protest against censorship and book banning. And since the English Parliament of 1643 wished to be able to ban books without protest, they naturally banned it.
3. The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine was guaranteed to put any politician’s teeth on edge, as merely the title was political blasphemy. The idea that their “subjects” have rights is always a thorn in the political side. Paine was banished from England in 1792, and his publishers went to jail in 1793 and 1819.
4. The Impending Crisis in the South – How to Meet It by Hinton Rowan Helper caused a firestorm in 1859 by declaring, and statistically showing, that slavery was a drag on the economy of the emerging economic system of the United States. Its distributors were jailed throughout the American South.
5. Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler was, of course, banned after World War II, because Hitler lost, and the winners had spent the war demonizing him. And, of course, he had a few ideas politicians wanted to use without being linked to him.
6. Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels has been a “damned” book almost from the second the first sheet rolled out of the press.It was listed in Index of Forbidden Books as “anarchistic, violent and opposed to what is best for man.” The Germans legally banned it in 1878 and other governments followed suit right up to Joe McCarthy attacking it on the floor of the U.S.Senate in 1953.
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell presented politicians as pigs, which is hardly the best way to keep politicians from banning it. Orwell’s opus is one of the most censored books in schools throughout the English speaking world. The banners probably don’t bother to read it as they have decided that Orwell is an anarchist, or a Communist, or a Socialist, or a Fascist.
8. Black Boy by Richard Wright was pretty much a straight autobiography, but it ran afoul of politicians throughout the U.S. The entire state of Mississippi found it unpalatable and banned it as “…a damnable lie…” Baton Rouge, Louisiana pulled it from school libraries, and the North contributed similar instances in Nashua, New Hampshire and Island Trees, New York. Sort of adding insult to injury if you read Wright’s story.
9. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque joined the works of many Jewish authors in the famous book burnings of the Nazis. However, it was also banned in Boston in 1929. You can’t sneak pacifism past any politician.
10. In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen allegedly libeled the government of the United States, basically by showing that they had jailed an innocent man. So while the court dragged it’s heels, the book was effectively banned from 1983 to 1991.
Collecting Books Banned on Societal Grounds
A society is basically defined by its mores. Works that attack – or merely disregard – the mores of any society are likely to be banned or censored. As mores change, of course, so do banned books. What was permissible in the nineteenth century may have resulted in a ban in the twentieth and vice versa. Society protects itself and the mores that hold it together. As mores change, the structure of censorship changes. For example, The Decameron was openly displayed in the seventeenth century, but hidden in a locked cabinet in the Nineteenth. So this type of censorship is very much limited to the society it issues from. Here are ten that have provided more than their share of offense:
1. Lysistrata by Aristophanes pushes buttons in more than one society. Male dominated societies fear the female dominance it portrays. Homophobic societies shy away and warlike societies run to ban it. Perhaps the most banned play of all time – well – if not for:
2. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, which takes up perhaps the greatest societal taboo, incest. Oedipus loved his mother, and that has had censor’s underwear in a bunch for more than two millennia now.
3. The Satiricon by Petronius Arbiter has been ruffling society’s feathers for quite a while. Banned from ancient Rome to modern New York, Mr. Arbiter seems to have found a way to annoy every prude who ever lived.
4. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne was, in fact, a response to, or even a satire of, Puritanism. Therefore, its appearance lead to it being banned in New England. In fact, protests against it forced Hawthorne to move from Salem.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee typifies the position of the art of literature in a changing social environment. It was attacked and banned as portraying institutionalized racism as literature.
6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain uses the word “nigger”- Fine and dandy back when it was written, but not so hot today in a world of mindless politically correct speech.
7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury deals with book burning and banning, and it was marketed for 13 years in an expurgated state. Such irony is typical of censorship, if you look for it.
8. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs is a wry, funny, almost nouveau roman nightmare dealing with homosexuality, heroin and other anti-social subjects. So it is quite natural that it was banned in Boston.
9. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. took the whole world across the tracks to a world of prostitutes, homosexuals, drugs and alcohol. John Calder fought a protracted battle to publish it in Britain.
10. The Well of Loneliness by Radcliffe Hall breaks the homosexual taboo, without displaying even a hint of eroticism. It was banned on the homosexual societal taboo alone with not even a tip of the hat to sex, or obscenity.
Collecting Books Banned on Sexual Grounds
Well, we don’t talk about this one in polite company. If it’s erotic, chances are someone, somewhere has tried to get it banned, burned or cleaned up. Portraying sex, outside of ritualistic mannerisms proscribed by society, embarrasses people, and embarrassment often leads to book banning. Banned books in this area differ from unbanned erotica only in the sense that they have been officially banned somewhere. Baudelaire was banned, so he fits, Verlaine was not, so he doesn’t. As to content, well, Verlaine was more erotic ( and nastier for that matter). Here are ten “officially” banned erotic classics.
1. The Art of Love by Ovid really ticked off the rather libertine Romans, quite a feat. Emperor Augustus himself did the honors, kicking Ovid and his nasty little book out of the Imperial City.
2. Candide by Voltaire came up with some really great euphemisms, but that didn’t stop Etienne Antoine, bishop of Tryne, from prohibiting its printing in France because it was godless and sacrilegious (and sexy, but how would a bishop know that?).
3. Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Lady of Pleasure by John Cleland is a celebrated case. Fanny has become the poster girl for anti-censorship campaigns throughout the world. Banned in England, the U.S. Canada and just about everywhere English is spoken at one time or another.
4. The Story of O by Pauline Reage won literary awards, but ended up banned in Paris, of all places. Legal venues in the U.K. and the U.S. tried to catch up, but being banned in Paris in the sixties was too much to overcome. It was, of course, the best selling French novel of the sixties.
5. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H.Lawrence has been the cause of so many legal battles over censorship that he should have titled it “Lady Chatterley’s Lawyer”.
6.Ulysses by James Joyce was burned by the U. S. Post Office immediately upon its arrival from Paris. The British also took offense and burned the first three editions of it at Folkstone. In 1999, the Modern Library named it the greatest novel of the 20th Century. Go figure.
7. The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller took thirty years and a Supreme Court decision to keep Americans from legally burning it. Leaving Henry to come home and become America’s favorite dirty old man.
8. Jurgen by James Branch Cabell tells the story of a fellow with a magic shirt that made him irresistible to women. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, as well as Boston’s Watch and Ward Society, however, resisted to the point of an outright ban on its sales.
9. Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson gave the world a peek inside the sexual intrigues of suburbia. Despite the fact that, in the words of Raymond Chandler, Wilson “made fornication as dull as a railroad timetable,” the book was legally banned in New York, and several booksellers were brought to trial for selling it.
10. Lolita by Vladamir Nabokov shocked Parisian sensibilities and was banned by the Fourth Republic. British customs banned it Britain. Perhaps influenced by Chevalier’s Oscar for singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, however, the Americans had no objection to it.