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13 of the Most Controversial Books of All Time

Despite the heated controversy surrounding these lightning-rod books, they continue to live on in hearts, minds, and libraries around the world.

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1984, by George Orwell

George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, was controversial because at the time it came into the world, “The Thought Police” and the “Ministry of Truth” were keenly felt in a society that had been divided after a global war. The classic paints a grim picture of the “Big Brother” led future of the world under a society robbed of free will and privacy. It’s been adapted into plays and films and continues to be revered for its prescient themes, especially as privacy is threatened around the world.

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Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron

In Sophie’s Choice, written by William Styron, the reader takes an unimaginable journey through one woman’s war-torn past that would haunt her forever. Sophie, a mother from Poland, survives Auschwitz only to resettle into a new life in Brooklyn. There, she falls in love with the troubled Nathan and finds herself confiding in her new Southern novelist neighbor, Stingo. The story of her past unfolds to Stingo and is as heartbreaking as it is controversial.

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The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

It’s arguable that Salman Rushdie wrote the most controversial book of all time. The Satanic Verses, first published in 1988, is partly based on the story of the life of the prophet Mohammad. The book, considered by many followers of Islam to be incredibly offensive on multiple fronts, angered Muslims around the world. After publication, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini even ordered a fatwa, whereby he ordered Muslims to kill Rushdie. Despite the controversy; the threats and subsequent bombings to bookstores who carried the book; the threats on Rushdie’s life; and the banning and burning of the book in countries around the world, it received critical acclaim and continues to be sold today.

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, categorized as a young adult title when it was published in 1951, was a cacophony of profanity, sexuality, and plenty of other subversive elements. Its famed protagonist Holden Caulfield was thought by many to spark juvenile tendencies in young writers around the globe. That said, its perceptive study of the adolescent mentality still makes it a popular choice in classrooms across America today.

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The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar, controversial as it was, has secured a spot on almost every bookshelf in every library across America. Published in 1963 under a pseudonym, Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel takes a stark look at her protagonist Esther’s descent into mental illness. Esther struggles with crippling depression and multiple suicide attempts as she tries to make her way through young adulthood in the New York publishing scene.

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Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain was a brilliant debut about a 14-year-old African-American boy being saved in a Christian church in Harlem. The book, published in 1953 in an America that was racially divided more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, hit on hugely controversial topics that were sweeping the nation: racism in the Jim Crow South, homosexuality, and the deep-seeded injustice of segregation. The book’s controversy was viewed by many as a denial against the firsthand experience of racism in its many names shapes and forms.

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Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, published in 1955, is one of the most famous controversial books of all time. It is the story of the unhealthy obsession of the middle-aged literary professor Herbert Humbert with the 12-year-old Dolores Haze, whom he nicknames Lolita. As shocking as this predatory story was, Nabokov’s psychological masterpiece was popular enough to become a mainstay of popular culture across mediums; in fact, the film version is still considered one of Stanley Kubric’s most recognized films.

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Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller

Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published in 1934 in France, was controversial due to its rampant misogyny, sexually graphic content, and themes of toxic masculinity. Its 1961 publication in America led to a series of dozens of famous obscenity trials across the country. One judge said it wasn’t a book, but rather “a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”

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The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier’s 1974 novel The Chocolate War sparked controversy for its dark themes of physical and mental abuse inflicted upon Jerry, a teenager in an all-boys Catholic High School. The book’s sexuality, bullying, and profanity raised eyebrows, angering thousands of parents across America. (The fact that this novel was categorized under YA didn’t help matters.) Despite the controversy, Jerry’s bravery in the face of his nonconformity still resonates today.

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The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown

Dan Brown’s uber bestseller The Da Vinci Code offended many Roman Catholics around the world with its ideas around an alternative Christian doctrine: Did the relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene lead to an ongoing secret bloodline, protected by a secret society? The book has sold millions and gazillions, and has been translated into dozens of languages. Ultimately, no matter how controversial this book was, its reach has been as epic as its unfeasible plotline.

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Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous

Go Ask Alice, published in 1971, was the fictional account of a young woman’s spiral into drug abuse, written in an unsparing diary format. In the controversial book, two teenaged friends spiral into drug use and despair. The book features rampant drug use, rape, homosexuality, sexual abuse, prostitution, and more drugs (heroin, LSD, and sleeping pills pilfered from grandparents). Will Alice be able to crawl her way back to sobriety? Generations of high school students across America have torn through Go Ask Alice to find out.

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Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published privately in Italy in 1928, but the unexpurgated version didn’t find its way to England before 1960 when Penguin Books printed it. The book is a sexually frank account of an affair between a stonemason and an unhappily married woman from England’s upper class. In 1960, Penguin faced a landmark obscenity case—and won, handily. Despite that, and despite its subsequent best-selling status, poor Lady Chatterley still faced censorship, confiscation, and banning, from India to Australia.

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Ulysses, by James Joyce

Irish author James Joyce is to Ulysses as Homer is to The Odyssey. Or at least, that’s how Joyce initially conceived his unforgettable door stopper, first published in 1922. There are many elements of controversy to be found in its pages that include a Modernist kaleidoscope of blasphemy and sexuality; ultimately, its stream of consciousness style is what placed Ulysses ahead of its time. As with many of the other controversial tomes on this list, Ulysses was the subject of an obscenity trial. No matter—June 16th will forever be celebrated in Ireland as Bloomsday.

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Rachel Aydt
Rachel Aydt is a part-time Assistant Professor of writing and literature at the New School University. Her writing has appeared in publications that include Time, Prevention, Redbook, the New York Post, and the New York Times' Motherlode blog. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Find her on Twitter at @Rachelrooo.