7 books governments didn’t want people to read
The brutal attack on author Salman Rushdie in New York on August 12 has reignited discussions around censorship in literature.
The event commemorates the 100th anniversary of James Joyce’s epic “Ulysses,” which was banned in both the United States and the United Kingdom upon its initial release; a signed first edition of “The Satanic Verses” will also be on show.
A common theme of book bans throughout history is that censorship tends to backfire and make its targets more popular, said Harrington pointing to the case of “Spycatcher,” an autobiography by a former MI5 officer that became a bestseller after it was banned in 1987.
“The more you suppress, the more people fight it,” he added.
The fair’s collection of censored works features a number of titles, including the ones below, that are considered classics in some jurisdictions and contraband in others.
“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
courtesy of Shapero Rare Books
Nabokov’s story of a pedophile’s infatuation with a young girl predictably fell foul of censors in the UK, so French publisher Maurice Girodias — a champion for banned works who specialized in erotica — put the first copies into print. English novelist Graham Greene campaigned for the novel’s release in Europe, arguing “Lolita” was a metaphor for the corruption of the old world (Europe) by the new (the United States). Bans in several countries were overturned by the time Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation came out in 1962, and the book became a hit. But it remains high on the list of the most banned and challenged texts in US schools and libraries, according to the American Library Association.
“Animal Farm” by George Orwell (1945)
Courtesy of PY Rare Books
US and UK publishers rejected Orwell’s satire on the dangers of Stalinist repression during World War II, when they feared the novella could undermine their alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler, but later rushed to embrace it when the Soviets became the enemy during the Cold War. “Animal Farm” was off-limits in Eastern bloc until the fall of the USSR, and later the United Arab Emirates banned it for its depiction of pigs as leading characters, which some considered to be in contradiction with Islamic values.
“Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller (1934)
courtesy of Jonkers Rare Books
“I’m not sure it would be published today,” said Tom Ayling of Jonkers Rare Books, which sells limited editions of Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel about life as a struggling writer in Paris. The prevalence of violent sex scenes and misogynist language would be a hard sell for modern audiences, he argued. Only Obelisk Press, an outlet better known for distributing pornography, would publish “Tropic of Cancer” in 1934. US customs banned the book the same year, but it circulated on the black market until the Supreme Court declared it non-obscene in 1964. Turkey outlawed the novel as recently as 1986.
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence (1928)
courtesy of Jonkers Rare Books
Lawrence’s agent advised the author that his risqué tale could not be published in the UK, due to both its sexually explicit content and its depiction of then-taboo relationships between members of different societal classes. The author eventually secured a limited English-language print run via an Italian publisher. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was not published in the UK until 1960, where it became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial fought by publisher Penguin Books against the state. Penguin won and, on the first day the novel became available, 200,000 copies sold. The book was subsequently banned in China in 1987 on the grounds that it would “corrupt the minds of young people and is also against the Chinese tradition,” although it is unclear if prohibition is still enforced.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce (1922)
courtesy of Peter Harrington Boo
The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade (1904)
courtesy of Voewood Rare Books
Written in the Bastille during the French revolution, the author was interrupted when the prison was stormed by insurgents and never finished the story. But “120 Days” remains among the most notorious works of literature, featuring depraved fetishes, blood-soaked orgies, torture and pedophilia. The book was first published in Germany in 1904 and then banned across Europe for much of the 20th century. A 1975 film adaptation by Pier Paolo Pasolini was also banned in several countries. South Korea has banned the book twice this century, and now it can be sold there only in a sealed plastic cover to adults 19 or over.