These Are the Books That Were Banned the Decade You Were Born
Are books dangerous? You might be surprised! Check out the masterpieces, bestsellers, and picture books across the decades that got people riled up.
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Written in 411 B.C. by the Greek playwright Aristophanes, Lysistrata dramatizes the conflict that ensues after a group of women refuses to have sex with men until the men agree to end the Peloponnesian War. This early examination of gender roles still incites controversy in the modern age. The play was often banned in Europe and Australia for its lewd bawdiness, alongside its themes on the empowerment of women. The play remains a popular work to reference and adapt because of its alluring, hot button, subject matter. See how you’re doing on our checklist of 50 books everyone should read before they turn 50.
1960s: Rabbit, Run
John Updike’s first novel to center on the Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom character was banned in Ireland in 1962 due to what was considered its explicit presentation of sexuality. Censors there deemed the novel obscene and indecent. In the novel, Updike describes Rabbit’s sexual encounters in language that is both lyrical and explicit in its description of physical acts. The character also cusses and is open about sexual desire as he pursues an extramarital affair, abandoning his wife and child.
1960s: Last Exit to Brooklyn
First published in 1964, Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel sets in a Brooklyn neighborhood and delves into the lives of the characters who live there. These figures include prostitutes and gang members in book sections filled with brutality, and what were considered at the time, taboo subjects. Selby writes in a style that subverts conventional grammar using slang and the colloquial diction of his characters in a stream of consciousness style. The novel was banned in Britain in 1967, a ruling that was later reversed with advocacy from other writers.
1960s: Tropic of Cancer
First published in 1934 in Paris, this novel wasn’t published until 1961 in the United States, where it immediately caused a stir by igniting obscenity trials that led all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court held that the novel could not be “constitutionally banned,” and reversed prior court’s decision that it was “obscene.” The novel follows author Henry Miller’s semi-autobiographical experiences in a Parisian Bohemia with explicit descriptions of various sexual encounters that skew misogynistic.
1960s: The Country Girls
Edna O’Brien’s influential Irish novel that follows two young women from a small village, was reportedly written in just three weeks—and incited instant controversy when first published in 1960. The author reportedly received anonymous hate mail and a priest actually burned the book in public. The novel was banned for explicit sexual content by Irish censors. According to New Statesman, “The moral hysteria that greeted the book’s appearance has ensured that both it, and O’Brien, have become era-defining symbols of the struggle for Irish women’s voices to be heard above the clamor of an ultra-conservative, ultra-religious and institutionally misogynistic society.”
This classic American novel, considered a masterpiece of satire, follows a World War II bomber consigned to fly combat missions. The title refers to the absurd rule, using circular logic, where if a soldier makes a request to be relieved of duty due to the insanity of the missions, he’s thereby considered sane and ineligible to be relieved. The novel was banned in Ohio in 1972 due to indecent language, but a court overturned the ban in 1976. The book stands out as a subversive novel with themes about resisting and questioning authority. Catch-22 became a hit movie, just like these 18 other novels.
Judy Blume’s novels are a hit with young readers for their relatable portrayal of the awkward, painful experiences of their many lovable tween and teen characters. Forever delves into the experience of a teenager losing her virginity, and was groundbreaking when published in 1975. Blume wrote it for her teenage daughter, who requested a book where sex wasn’t punished. The book focuses on birth control and both the practical and romantic details of teen sexuality. The novel is still frequently banned and was shelved in the adult section of book stores when first published. Don’t miss these 22 quotes from young adult books that will still inspire grown-ups.
Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful 1969 antiwar novel is frequently banned, notably in 1972 when a Michigan judge called it, according to Betsy Morais writing for The Atlantic, “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” The very next year a school board in North Dakota burned copies in the school’s furnace. The novel follows Billy Pilgrim, a World War II prisoner of war who becomes “unstuck in time” and travels to different moments in his life as well was to another planet. The novel’s themes explore the irrationality of war. Slaughterhouse-Five is one of 18 classic books you can read in a day.
1970s: The Scarlet Letter
Published in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel sets in a puritanical outpost in colonial America. The novel concerns Hester Prynne, a woman jailed for adultery and forced to wear a red letter “A” due to conceiving a child in an extramarital affair. The novel examines a judgemental, repressive culture, but it still incites controversy and bans. In the 1970s, one school district deemed the “pornographic and obscene.” Hester undergoes a significant version of what’s now known as “slut-shaming.” Some readers find these presentations to be “sympathetic” to an adulteress. The Scarlet Letter is one of the top 10 books everyone lies about having read.
1970s: The Anarchist Cookbook
William Powell wrote this incendiary tome when he was just 19 years old, but later disavowed what became a bestseller, urging publishers to stop selling it since the copyright was out of his hands. The book contains instructions for making bombs and contains a general manifesto for anarchist behavior. At the time he wrote it, Powell was beset with frustration over the Vietnam war draft and sought to resist U.S. government authority. Current printings have been edited from the original.