Banned Books

If you’ve visited the library at Northampton Square recently, you may have noticed our new display of banned books.

Throughout history, books have been burned, withdrawn, suppressed, and censored by organisations such as governments and religious institutions. Just last year, the American Library Association documented over 1,200 challenges to books held in libraries and schools, while a survey by the UK’s CILIP revealed that ⅓ of public librarians have been asked to remove books from the shelves.

In our collection here at City, we have a number of books which have been banned at some point since their publication. Here are just some of the books we have available to borrow:

Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (1791)

Paine’s famous collection of essays was withdrawn from publication in the UK for supporting the French Revolution, then reprinted by a different publisher three weeks later. Paine was charged with seditious libel by the UK government, but escaped hanging by staying in France.

Did you know? The first part of Rights of Man is said to have been written at the Angel Inn, just up the hill from City!

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Many US schools and school districts have banned Beloved due to parents’ complaints about explicit language and scenes of sexual violence. In the state of Virginia, Beloved bill was proposed in 2017 which would have forced schools to notify parents of any class reading containing “sexually explicit material”. The bill was vetoed, but it sparked a debate about free speech and the limits of the First Amendment.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988)

This controversial novel is banned in several countries including India, Iran, South Africa, and Venezuela for its “blasphemous” depiction of important figures in Islam. Due to death threats in response to this novel, Rushdie lived for ten years in hiding. In 2022 he was stabbed at a USA literary festival. Translators of the book have also been attacked since its publication.

The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman has been challenged by the USA’s Catholic League for “denigrating Christianity”. The full series is available to borrow on Libby.

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

Orwell’s allegorical depiction of the Leninist/Stalinist eras of the Soviet Union almost never got published. During the Second World War, British officials in the Ministry of Information warned publishers against printing Animal Farm because the Soviet Union had proven to be allies in the fight against Hitler, and the book was too obviously critical of its leaders. Orwell argued in an unpublished preface that such censorship showed England’s “servility” towards the USSR, and that English society at the time was committed to “defending democracy by totalitarian methods”.

Orwell’s other famous dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was banned in the USSR until a revised edition went to print in 1990. In 2022, it was the most downloaded novel in Russia.

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)

Books featuring sympathetic portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters often attract challenges and censorship: in the USA, many of 2022’s most-challenged titles reported by the ALA contain “LGBTQIA+ content”. In the UK, The Well of Loneliness was withdrawn from publication after it was judged at trial to be “obscene” for its lesbian main character. The book was not successfully reprinted until 1949, six years after Radclyffe Hall’s death.

It is only 20 years since the final repeal of Section 28, which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local councils and schools in the UK. Nowadays, we celebrate Pride Month here at CityLibrary.

Maus by Art Spiegelman (1991)

Spiegelman’s graphic novel is based on his father’s account of life as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. In January 2022, it was banned for use in classrooms by a school board in Tennessee for its depiction of events such as the hanging of Jewish people and the suicide of Spiegelman’s mother.

The book’s cover has also caused issues. In Germany, where swastikas are banned on non-scholarly books, Maus‘ publisher had to convince the government to allow the cover art to remain unchanged. In 2015, Maus was withdrawn from bookshops in Russia due to similar laws against swastikas, an act of censorship which Spiegelman described as ironic.


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