13 Banned Books You Should Read In Your Free Time

It’s hard to believe that in our modern times, people are still petitioning that books be banned from classrooms because of violence, language, and sexuality. After all, you can hardly expect a movie or television show, or even a video game, to experience any success without at least one of these components. So why ban works of literature that use such elements to reflect the life and times of the people in which they were written be subjected to such scrutiny and criticism?

Authors like Ernest Hemmingway, John Steinbeck, George Orwell, and Ralph Ellison have seen their literary works challenged in the classroom time and time again. The natural fear is that these works contain elements of life and history that can negatively impact students’ perceptions of the world. This, however, is ultimately counterproductive in preparing young adults for real world issues they will have to interact with after their formal education is finished. The following literary works have been subjected to banning petitions on more than one occasion, yet all of them contain valuable humanistic themes and concepts that speak both to the flaws of society, and to the potential of humanity. So if you have been looking for something good to read, going down this list is a great place to start.

1. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

One of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century, Harper Lee’s tale of racial injustice in Depression-era Alabama has been challenged numerous times for its use of racial slurs and sexually explicit subject matter, particularly rape. However, the main story line of a white lawyer defending a black man in a rape case, told from the perspective of young Scout, demonstrates the progressive attitude of Harper Lee’s generation, and a crucial aspect of American history we should not soon forget.

2. 1984 – George Orwell

George Orwell's dystopian novel is a tale of a futuristic society ruled by a totalitarian government that tightly monitors and controls the people following a catastrophic world war. The book contains thematic elements of nationalism, sexual repression, and ironically enough, censorship. It was almost immediately banned in Russia after the fall of the USSR, owing to its pro-communist elements, and these same reasons have been cited for having it banned in the United States over the years.

3. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck's classic tale of displaced migrant ranch hands in Depression-era California is still largely utilized for required reading in schools across the country, but like Steinbeck's more famous telling of the Okies movement, The Grapes of Wrath, has been faced challenges and ban petitions multiple times since its publication. The book reflects on the socioeconomic status of the United States at the time, and has been cited for racial slurs, profanity, and violence.

4. A Farewell To Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

Ernest Hemmingway's first bestseller revolves around a love affair between an American Lieutenant and an English nurse, stationed in Italy during World War 1. The novel depicts, not only the explicit love affair between the two characters, but also the cynicism of soldiers during war and an alarming accurate account of the Battle of Caporetto, causing the book to be banned in Italy for fear of anti-military sentiments. Hemmingway's use of vulgar language has also been cited in the United States as reasons for having it banned in the education system. Critics like Michael Reynolds, however, have deemed it "the premier American war novel from that debacle World War 1." 

5. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Even though Ralph Ellison's novel is not about a man who is literally invisible, there would, no doubt, be petitions to have it banned for an element of fantasy and science fiction if that were the case. The real story, however, has had its own share of challenges, following a nameless black man in 1920s Harlem, who, as he describes, is an invisible man simply because people refuse to see him. The character goes through a number of experiences throughout the book, both violent, sexual, and racially motivated, that reflects the racial constructs of the early twentieth century, and has also been cited for profanity. 

6. The Jungle – Upton Sinclair

The Jungle is not as much remembered for its commentating on the living and working status of US immigrants during the early twentieth century as it is for its exposure of unsanitary health conditions in the meatpacking industry in Chicago. The book was challenged so harshly for its depiction of working class poverty, unpleasant and inhumane living conditions, and its criticism of a lack of social services to resolve the issues. When it finally received national publication, a storm of controversy regarding the validity of Sinclair’s writing and his socialist views ultimately weren’t enough to stop the federal government from establishing the now named Food and Drug Administration.

7. The Color Purple – Alice Walker

Alice Walker’s tale of African American women in 1930s rural Georgia has been a frequent target of censorship attempts, even though it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the year following its publication. The novel addresses various social issues of the time, but mainly the exceedingly low social status of African American women, and has been cited for its use of violent and explicit content.  

8. The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

Author Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age novel, set in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, is narrated by an unpopular, introverted high school freshman named Charlie. The character expresses his thoughts, feelings, and experiences surrounding his sexuality, introverted lifestyle, unconventional thinking, and drug use in a series of letters written to an anonymous stranger. All of these thematic elements combined have obviously caused it to be banned since it was first published in 1999, making it one of the more recent entries on our list to become the victim of educational censorship.

9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s follow up novel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer takes place in various locations along the Mississippi River in the Southern antebellum society of the 1860s. It is largely noted for its use of vernacular English to depict color regionalism and fortified attitudes like racism in the South. It’s no surprise then that it has been cited for censorship ever since it was first published for harsh language, violence, supporting of racial stereotypes, and extensive use of the word ‘nigger.’

10. Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling

Possibly the most popular book series of the twenty-first century, the popularity of J.K. Rowling’s tale of good against evil in the modernized world of wizards has not been enough to excuse it from literary censorship attempts. No solid argument of violence, language, or inappropriate subject matter can really be argued here. Instead, petitions for banning the series have been cited for reasons including the promotion of witchcraft, utilizing an unsavory and unrealistic hero role model for youths, and that material surrounding fantasy is inappropriate in formal education.

11. The DaVinci Code – Dan Brown

Dan Brown’s detective-meets-conspiracy-theory story about an alternative history surrounding the lineage of Jesus Christ, and the ancient feud involving the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei, has received a storm of criticism from Christians around the globe. Nevertheless, the book has remained one of the more popular releases of the early twenty-first century, but has been the subject of censorship for religious perversion, and for scientific and historical inaccuracies.

12. The Awakening – Cate Chopin

Cate Chopin’s turn-of-the-century novel about feminism and societal constraint in 1899 New Orleans has also been subjected to numerous ban attempts since its publication. The novel is considered one of the earliest commentaries on feminism and precursors American modernist literature. Although it is one of the less controversial entries on the list in terms of ban attempts, it has been censored numerous times for its description of female sexual desire, and controversy at the character’s abandonment of her husband and children for her own personal pursuits.

13. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Perhaps the most appropriate and, at the same time, ironic entry on this list, is Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel of a dystopian society in which books are burned by the overseeing government in order to suppress dissent. Bradbury has claimed that his inspiration in writing the novel was his concern regarding the Red Scare paranoia of the McCarthy era in the United States and the historical role book burning has played in undermining free societies to come to a new way of thinking, like in Nazi Germany not twenty years before. Despite the inherent contradiction and irony of filing ban and censorship complaints on the book, several attempts have been cited for reasons including vulgarity, language, and descriptive imagery of the burning of the Bible. 

1 comment
  • Mary Afuso
    Mary Afuso
    I've read 11 of the 13 -- most are excellent. The Awakening is pretty "Meh" as far as literature goes.
    February 3, 2016