Some of the most controversial books in history are now regarded as classics. The Bible and works by Shakespeare are among those that have been banned over the past two thousand years. Here is a selective timeline of book bannings, burnings, and other censorship activities.
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259–210 B.C.: The Chinese emperor Shih Huang Ti is said to have buried alive 460 Confucian scholars to control the writing of history in his time. In 212 B.C., he burned all the books in his kingdom, retaining only a single copy of each for the Royal Library — and those were destroyed before his death. With all previous historical records destroyed, he thought history could be said to begin with him.
A.D. 8: The Roman poet Ovid was banished from Rome for writing Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love). He died in exile in Greece eight years later. All Ovid’s works were burned by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, and an English translation of Ars Amatoria was banned by U.S. Customs in 1928.
35: The Roman emperor Caligula opposed the reading of The Odyssey by Homer, written more than 300 years before. He thought the epic poem was dangerous because it expressed Greek ideas of freedom.
640: According to legend, the caliph Omar burned all 200,000 volumes in the library at Alexandria in Egypt. In doing so, he said: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.” In burning the books, the caliph provided six months’ fuel to warm the city’s baths.
1497–98: Savonarola, a Florentine religious fanatic with a large following, was one of the most notorious and powerful of all censors. In these years, he instigated great “bonfires of the vanities” which destroyed books and paintings by some of the greatest artists of Florence. He persuaded the artists themselves to bring their works—including drawings of nudes—to the bonfires. Some poets decided they should no longer write in verse because they were persuaded that their lines were wicked and impure. Popular songs were denounced, and some were turned into hymns with new pious lyrics. Ironically, in May of 1498 another great bonfire was lit — this time under Savonarola who hung from a cross. With him were burned all his writings, sermons, essays, and pamphlets.
1525: Six thousand copies of William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament were printed in Cologne, Germany, and smuggled into England—and then burned by the English church. Church authorities were determined that the Bible would be available only in Latin.
1559: For hundreds of years, the Roman Catholic Church listed books that were prohibited to its members; but in this year, Pope Paul IV established the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. For more than 400 years this was the definitive list of books that Roman Catholics were told not to read. It was one of the most powerful censorship tools in the world.
1597: The original version of Shakespeare’s Richard II contained a scene in which the king was deposed from his throne. Queen Elizabeth I was so angry that she ordered the scene removed from all copies of the play.
1614: Sir Walter Raleigh’s book The History of the World was banned by King James I of England for “being too saucy in censuring princes.”
1624: Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was burnt in Germany by order of the Pope.
1616–42: Galileo’s theories about the solar system and his support of the discoveries of Copernicus were condemned by the Catholic Church. Under threat of torture, and sentenced to jail at the age of 70, the great scientist was forced to renounce what he knew to be true. On his death, his widow agreed to destroy some of his manuscripts.
1720: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was placed on the Index Librorum by the Spanish Catholic Church.
1744: Sorrows of Young Werther by the famed German author Goethe was published in this year and soon became popular throughout Europe. The book was a short novel, in diary form, in which a young man writes of his sufferings from a failed love affair. The final chapter of the book drops the diary form and graphically depicts Werther’s suicide. Because a number of copycat suicides followed the publication of the book, the Lutheran church condemned the novel as immoral; then governments in Italy, Denmark, and Germany banned the book. Two hundred years later an American sociologist, David Phillips, wrote about the effect of reporting suicides in The Werther Effect.
1788: Shakespeare’s King Lear was banned from the stage until 1820 — in deference to the insanity of the reigning monarch, King George III.
1807: Dr. Thomas Bowdler quietly brought out the first of his revised editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The preface claimed that he had removed from Shakespeare “everything that can raise a blush on the cheek of modesty” — which amounted to about 10 per cent of the playwright’s text. One hundred and fifty years later, it was discovered that the real excision had been done by Dr. Bowdler’s sister, Henrietta Maria. The word “bowdlerize” became part of the English language.
1843: The English Parliament updated an act that required all plays to be performed in England to be submitted for approval to the Lord Chamberlain. Despite objections by illustrious figures such as George Bernard Shaw (in 1909), this power remained with the Lord Chamberlain until 1968.
1859: Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, outlining the theory of evolution. The book was banned from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, where Darwin had been a student. In 1925, Tennessee banned the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools; the law remained in force until 1967. The Origin of Species was banned in Yugoslavia in 1935 and in Greece in 1937.
1859: George Eliot’s novel Adam Bede was attacked as the “vile outpourings of a lewd woman’s mind,” and the book was withdrawn from circulation libraries in Britain.
1864–1959: Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables was placed on the Index Librorum.
1881: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (published in 1833) was threatened with banning by Boston’s district attorney unless the book was expurgated. The public uproar brought such sales of his books that Whitman was able to buy a house with the proceeds.
1885: A year after the publication of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the library of Concord, Massachusetts, decided to exclude the book from its collection. The committee making the decision said the book was “rough, coarse and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” By 1907, it was said that Twain’s novel had been thrown out of some library somewhere every year, mostly because its hero was said to present a bad example for impressionable young readers.
1927: A translation of The Arabian Nights by the French scholar Mardrus was held up by U.S. Customs. Four years later another translation, by Sir Richard Burton, was allowed into the country, but the ban on the Mardrus version was maintained.
1929: Jack London’s popular novel Call of the Wild was banned in Italy and Yugoslavia. In 1932, copies of this and other books by London were burned by the Nazis in Germany.
1929: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was banned in the Soviet Union because of “occultism.”
1929–62: Novels by Ernest Hemingway were banned in various parts of the world such as Italy, Ireland, and Germany (where they were burned by the Nazis). In California in 1960, The Sun Also Rises was banned from schools in San Jose and all of Hemingway’s works were removed from Riverside school libraries. In 1962, a group called Texans for America opposed textbooks that referred students to books by the Nobel Prize-winning author.
1931: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was banned by the governor of Hunan province in China because, he said, animals should not use human language and it was disastrous to put animals and humans on the same level.
1932: In a letter to an American publisher, James Joyce said that “some very kind person” bought the entire first edition of Dubliners and had it burnt.
1933: A series of massive bonfires in Nazi Germany burned thousands of books written by Jews, communists, and others. Included were the works of John Dos Passos, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Lenin, Jack London, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx, Erich Maria Remarque, Upton Sinclair, Stalin, and Leon Trotsky.
1937: The Quebec government passed An Act Respecting Communistic Propaganda, popularly known as the Padlock Act. The statute empowered the attorney general to close, for up to one year, any building that was used to disseminate “communism or bolshevism.” (These two terms were undefined.) In addition, the act empowered the attorney general to confiscate and destroy any publication propagating communism or bolshevism. Anyone caught publishing, printing, or distributing such literature faced imprisonment for up to one year without appeal. In 1957, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Padlock Act in a case called Switzman vs. Elbling. The court said that the act made the propagation of communism a crime; however, the court’s reason for striking down the law had less to do with the evils of censorship than with the division of powers between federal and provincial governments. The court declared that the power to pass criminal law belonged exclusively to Ottawa, so Quebec’s Padlock Act was ultra vires and unconstitutional. Only two justices raised the issue of censorship in this case.
1953: The Irish government banned Anatole France’s A Mummer’s Tale (for immorality), Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Across the River and Into the Trees (for immorality), all the works of John Steinbeck (for subversion and immorality), all the works of Emile Zola (for immorality), and most works by William Faulkner (for immorality).
1954: Mickey Mouse comics were banned in East Berlin because Mickey was said to be an “anti-Red rebel.”
1959: After protests by the White Citizens’ Council, The Rabbits’ Wedding, a picture book for children, was put on the reserved shelf in Alabama public libraries because it was thought to promote racial integration.
1960: D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the subject of a trial in England, in which Penguin Books was prosecuted for publishing an obscene book. During the proceedings, the prosecutor asked: “Is it a book you would wish your wife or servant to read?” Penguin won the case, and the book was allowed to be sold in England. A year earlier, the U.S. Post Office had declared the novel obscene and non-mailable. But a federal judge overturned the Post Office’s decision and questioned the right of the postmaster general to decide what was or was not obscene.
1970: White Niggers of America, a political tract about Quebec politics and society, was written by Pierre Vallières while he was in jail. The book was confiscated when the writer was accused of sedition, and an edition published in France was not allowed into Canada. A U.S. edition was published in English in 1971.
1974: The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence revealed some of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s dirty tricks and failures overseas and in the United States. The authors (Victor Marchetti, a former senior analyst for the CIA, and John D. Marks, a former U.S. State Department official) were told by a U.S. court to submit their manuscript to the CIA before the book was published. The CIA demanded the removal of 339 passages from the text, but eventually the publisher won the right to retain 171 of those in the first edition of the book. By 1980, the publisher had won the legal right to publish 25 more passages, but the most recent edition (1989) still indicated numerous censored passages.
1977: Decent Interval, a memoir written by a former CIA employee, criticized the CIA, Henry Kissinger, and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Author Frank Snepp succeeded in getting his book published before the CIA knew about it, but the government filed a lawsuit against him, even though no classified information appeared in the book. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Snepp; the government seized all profits from the book and imposed a lifelong gag order on the author. Snepp was required to submit everything he might write—fiction, screenplays, non-fiction, poetry—to the CIA for review. The CIA won the right to cut any classified or classifiable information within 30 days of receipt of Snepp’s work.
1977: Maurice Sendak’s picture book In the Night Kitchen was removed from the Norridge, Illinois, school library because of “nudity to no purpose.” The book was expurgated elsewhere when shorts were drawn on the nude boy.
1980s: During its examination of school learning materials, the London County Council in England banned the use of Beatrix Potter’s children’s classics The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from all London schools. The reason: the stories portrayed only “middle-class rabbits.”
1983: Members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee called for the rejection of The Diary of Anne Frank because it was “a real downer.” It was also challenged for offensive references to sexuality.
1987: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou was removed from the required reading list for Wake County, North Carolina, high school students because of a scene in which the author, at the age of seven and a half, is raped.
1987: After retiring from 20 years’ service with Britain’s MI5 counterintelligence agency, Peter Wright moved to Australia and wrote his autobiography, entitled Spycatcher, in which he accused British security services of trying to topple Harold Wilson’s 1974–76 Labour government. The book, a best-seller, was banned in Britain, and the British government waged a lengthy and expensive legal battle to prevent its publication in Australia. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that if Wright ever returned to Britain, he would be prosecuted for breaching the country’s Official Secrets Act. But when Wright died in 1995, he got the last laugh, since his ashes were scattered over the waters of the Blackwater Sailing Club in southern England.
1997: In Ireland, a government censorship board banned at least 24 books and 90 periodicals.
1998: In Kenya the government banned 30 books and publications for “sedition and immorality,” including The Quotations of Chairman Mao and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
1998: American publishers expressed outrage over news that a Washington bookstore was ordered to turn over records of Monica Lewinsky’s book purchases to independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Lewinsky is the former White House intern with whom President Clinton had what he later termed an “inappropriate relationship.” The Association of American Publishers declared: “I don’t think the American people could find anything more alien to our way of life or repugnant to the Bill of Rights than government intrusion into what we think and what we read. I would suggest Mr. Starr give some thought to his own reading list. Maybe it’s time for him to re-read the First Amendment.”
2001: The U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, passed by the American Congress in response to terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, gave the FBI power to collect information about the library borrowings of any U.S. citizen. The act also empowered the federal agency to gain access to library patrons’ log-ons to Internet Web sites—and protected the FBI from disclosing the identities of individuals being investigated.