To many of us, the idea of a banned book seems uncommon, something from a past age or confined to a particularly totalitarian setting. But there are still books banned around the world today, including in some countries that might surprise you.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 books that are either currently banned or are limited in availability due to a ban:
1. Lord Horror by David Britton (Formerly Banned in The U.K.)
Based on William Joyce, the infamous fascist broadcaster “Lord Haw Haw,” the razor-wielding Lord Horror stars in this 1989 novel set in a world which saw the Nazis win World War II. The Manchester authorities, who had harassed Britton's Savoy publishing house since the 1970s, figured that the book was an easy target and probably took some personal offense because, amid all its transgressions, the novel took clear aim at authoritarian repression, particularly the homophobia of the conservative-dominated Manchester police.
Lord Horror became the last book banned in Britain under the Obscene Publications Act, and Britton spent a month in jail. The author eventually had the ban overturned in a landmark ruling, but it had its impact: The book has never been republished, and copies are scarce. Plenty among the horror intelligentsia still consider Lord Horror a masterwork that never received the respect it deserves because of the crackdown.
2. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Restricted in Multiple Countries)
Ellis's tale of a murderous yuppie banker attracted plenty of ire in the U.S. after its 1990 publication, with condemnation coming from many quarters, especially over its depiction of violence against women. But the controversy later died down, and while there were boycotts and even death threats against Ellis, things here never escalated into an outright ban.
However, in a number of other countries, the book was prohibited or severely restricted. Germany banned it until 2000, and in the Australian state of Queensland, it's still technically prohibited (banned under the letter of the law, but unenforced). The rest of Australia and New Zealand are only slightly more permissive, restricting the sale or even lending from a library to shrink-wrapped copies to only those over 18.
3. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell (Banned in Multiple Countries)
Sometimes a book's banned not because of its message but the technical knowledge it contains (or claims to). Written as a giant “screw you” to the government by dissident William Powell during the Vietnam War era, The Anarchist Cookbook instructs readers how to build bombs and make drugs — albeit not particularly well. Powell has since converted to Anglicanism and has tried to get the book removed from circulation.
He's not alone: The book is banned in Australia, the U.K. arrested a teenager for terrorism for possessing it in 2007 (he was later released), and it's been cited in multiple countries as evidence of dangerous extremism in prosecuting those arrested on other charges. While the book's easy enough to find online, its notorious reputation and the government backlash no doubt helped push the 1991 decision of a new publisher to stop its production.
4. Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang (Restricted South Korea)
This detailed economic history by Cambridge Economics Professor Ha-Joon Chang is quite critical of neo-conservative economics, especially abroad, but it wouldn't exactly seem like a target for a ban. After all, there's plenty more incendiary stuff out there.
Not so for South Korea's military. Despite the relatively democratic nature of its society, the military still has sweeping powers to prevent certain works from reaching the eyes of soldiers and explicitly restricts works with an anti-capitalist message. In 2008, Chang's work was one of 23 the military put on its ban list, and it remains there today.
5. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (Banned in Lebanon)
Dan Brown's pseudo-historical mash might offend the sensibilities of literary types or anyone with a passing knowledge of history, but it's hardly the type of work one would think ban worthy.
Authorities in Lebanon, however, are incredibly keen to keep the balance of power between the country's many sects, even to the point of giving them authority to restrict works their religious leaders find offensive. In 2004, local Catholic notables, claiming that "Christianity is not about forgiveness to the point of insulting Jesus Christ," found Brown's story about Mary Magdalene fathering Jesus's kid too much to take and banned the book.
6. The Federal Mafia by Irwin Schiff (Restricted in the U.S.)
This particular case is an oddity as it's incredibly hard to ban a book in the U.S., even compared to the rest of the industrialized world. Censorship fights in the U.S. usually revolve around a media outlet refusing to acknowledge a particular view or a local school yanking offensive books from library shelves. Federal bans are nearly unheard of, but in 2004, a federal appeals court upheld an injunction against Irwin Schiff and his associates selling The Federal Mafia, a tome Schiff wrote while in prison for tax evasion, arguing that the federal income tax is illegal.
Rather than just sending Schiff back to jail for his continued crimes, the judge banned him from selling the text, which, to put it mildly, has some free speech implications. While not a full ban (Schiff and his cohorts got around it by offering the book for free), the case stands out in the otherwise “anything goes” approach of U.S. law to book publishing.
7. Great Soul by Joseph Lelyveld / 8. Jinnah of Pakistan by Stanley Wolpert (Restricted in India and Pakistan, respectively)
While Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah remain within living memory, the mythology of their roles in founding India and Pakistan, respectively, has already grown to the point where censors in both countries feel it must be defended. Lelyveld's biography Great Soul, which mentions a homosexual relationship of Gandhi's, was banned by the Indian state of Gujarat and unanimously upheld by the local government; Wolpert's biography Jinnah of Pakistan is similarly banned for recounting that the leader had a taste for wine and pork. Both bans show that it doesn't take that long for a country to start scrubbing its past, facts be damned.
9. Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler (Restricted in Multiple Countries)
Hitler's manifesto might accomplish the feat of making a tome on violent overthrow simultaneously ponderous and pathetic, but its inspiration of Nazi horrors has led to the work being banned or heavily restricted, especially in Germany and nearby European countries. Heavily censored versions are available, but fears of any return of fascist ideology mean restrictions last to this day. Whether this actually achieves anything is a matter for debate, and the leaders of some German Jewish groups have called for the ban to be lifted, believing that Nazism is best countered by exposing it in a free society.
10. Zhuan Falun by Li Hongzhi (Banned in China)
It's a fairly innocuous book: a set of Buddhist and Taoist-influenced meditation practices. But this work by Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi is ruthlessly suppressed in China.
Why? It's less the specific teachings of Falun Gong than the fact that the popular practice was a potential alternative organizing system outside the control of China's oligarchy. Well versed in their history, China’s ruling elite are aware of how dangerous that sort of thing is, and so their crackdown was both brutal and complete. Thousands of Falun Gong followers were killed, thousands more imprisoned, and Li is now living in exile in the U.S.
11. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (Banned in Multiple Countries)
Remember that whole 1980s controversy about Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses? It never ended. Rushdie's work of magical realism is still banned in no less than 14 countries throughout the world for being insulting to Islam, stirring up religious strife or some such similar pap. While the Ayatollah Khomeini, who pronounced the original fatwa against Rushdie for the book, is long dead and the author himself has gone on with his life, the governments in question still prohibit its distribution. Sadly, sometimes the censor's touch lasts for decades.
While my last blog post dealt with how book burnings often fail to quell the ideas inside those books, this list should serve as a reminder that bans do have an impact. In each case, they shaped our intellectual world, which can be a surprisingly fragile thing.
David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He spends way too much time investigating the bleak parts of the present for local paper Mountain Xpress and the stranger parts of history, politics and culture for his own curiosity. He’s written for NSFWCORP, Sunlight Foundation, Coilhouse and his own intermittently updated blog, The Breaking Time, among others.
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