When it comes to banned books, there are the titles obvious to anyone – Naked Lunch, The Satanic Verses, Howl, Lolita, Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Governments and small-town libraries have been crying "porn!" at literature for centuries, not to mention denouncing/burning/banning written depictions of many other subjects supposedly vulgar or dangerous: sex, drugs, political and/or religious revolution, women existing, etc. To our modern-day minds enlightened by the liberal arts and the concept of free speech, this seems absurd.
Yet it still happens. Last week, to the outrage of many authors on its list, Penguin India agreed to not only recall but destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History on the grounds that it offended "religious feeling", a crime in the country. Sometimes, as with a couple of sex scenes, these cases are easily dismissed. Other times, as when, say, terrorists get involved, it’s less clear; for one, Penguin cited the potential for employee harassment as a reason for pulping The Hindus. Can people be trusted to read responsibly?
THE ANARCHIST COOKBOOK BY WILLIAM POWELL
The FBI called it "one of the crudest, low-brow, paranoiac writing efforts ever attempted", and Powell himself has regretted what he considers a book-length adolescent outburst in response to the Vietnam war. Since its original publication in 1971, the angry instructional – for homemade hallucinogenic drugs and explosives, mostly – has been linked to terrorist attack after terrorist attack around the world, and spurred the US to suggest a ban as recently as last year.
ECSTASY AND ME: MY LIFE AS A WOMAN BY HEDY LAMARR
Controversial in both content and veracity (Lamarr sued her publisher for embellishing and fabricating), this memoir chronicles the life of a film star known for her way-before-their-time orgasm close-ups, shoplifting and striking beauty – rather than her scientific innovation as the co-patenter (in 1945) of a technology that paved the way for modern wireless data systems. Australia banned it for six years after its release in 1967. Whether the specifics of the book are true doesn’t matter so much; Lamarr’s tense and resentful relationship to her beauty is rich enough to merit a read.
THE COUNTRY GIRLSBY EDNA O’BRIEN
Female sexual awakening is always a hard one for the censors to stomach, particularly when it attempts to end years of already oppressive post-war silence on sexuality. O’Brien’s debut offered two portrayals of female sexuality – one lusting for love, and one just lusting – as well as critiques of Ireland’s sociopolitical landscape at the time, ending with a creepy cliffhanger.
THE DARK BY JOHN McGAHERN
Another victim of trigger-happy mid-century Irish obscenity lawsuits, McGahern’s offences include having a protagonist coming of age despite a violent, envious father and Catholic priests implied to be doing what Catholic priests are often implied to do. (Wink.) The title aptly sets a tone for discomfiting tension and between-the-lines shame.
TANK GIRL BY ALAN MARTIN, JAMIE HEWLETT
Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl comics series – about an anti-authority badass in post-apocalyptic Australia – was challenged in Indiana for the obvious reasons: dark humour leads to sex with a mutant kangaroo lover leads to drug use leads to significant depiction of gross-out bodily fluids. Somehow, it stayed on the shelves.
THE PROOF OF THE HONEY BY SALWA AL NEIMI
The frame narrative here – a university librarian in Paris peruses a selection of Arabic erotica – is an obvious device, but Al Neimi’s emphasis on the physical unifies her complicated structure of sexy polyamorous anecdotes that challenge the reigning stereotype of Arab women while also incorporating accounts of oppression. Despite bans in Oman and several other Arab nations, it’s still a bestseller.
BLANKETS BY CRAIG THOMPSON
Thompson’s unusually lengthy autobiographical graphic novel chronicled his abandonment of evangelical Christianity and was deemed – along with Alison Bechdel’s famous coming-out-of-ager Fun Home – possibly too "pornographic" for a library in Missouri; the protagonist only gets respite from his parents’ abusive piety in a (frankly touching) love affair. The pair ended up staying on the shelves.
LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN BY HERBERT SELBY JR
Though its perversions of grammar are significant, what got the Italian censors – and, nearly, the British ones – were Selby Jr’s more general perversions; in true British fashion, one judge worried that women "might be embarrassed at having to read a book which dealt with homosexuality, prostitution, drug-taking and sexual perversion.’ It’s of the same ilk as Naked Lunch and "Howl", and its slew of uncouth topics also includes gang rape, alcoholism and brutality.
E FOR ECSTASY BY NICHOLAS SAUNDERS
A comprehensive, academic study of any drug is bound to wrack official nerves, and Saunders’ balanced portrayal combines history, fact and (generally positive) personal experience – and just saying no ends up sounding kind of unappealing. Although it was banned in Australia after it came out in 1994, anyone can read it still read it online here.
SISTERSBY LYNNE CHENEY
Pulpy, thinly veiled lesbian relationships set in the old west are titillating enough to send the government for its stamp of disapproval, but this pulp novel is perhaps most interesting for the other stuff that makes it scintillating: primarily, that its author is married to the super-conservative former US VP, Dick Cheney. Her super-patriotic subtitles – such as "A is for Abigail: An Almanac of Amazing American Women" – seem a bit doth-protest-too-much.
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