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(all of them highly recommended by us)



Most banned, censored, or restricted books are either placed off limits in or entirely removed from

religious institutions, school curricula, or school libraries.

They are less often restricted at bookstores and public libraries,

though in the past they might be banned or “indexed” there as well.

Some political and religious groups and private schools are known to burn books whose content they find offensive

or whose authors have incurred their disapproval, often because of their political affiliation.

Book bans and book censorship both thrive in an environment of cancel culture.

Books may be censored or banned by federal and local governments.

People who read, write, translate, or illustrate forbidden books

are subject to imprisonment in many parts of the world.

A few people are even executed for what can only be deemed thought-crime.


According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF),

the availability of books is “challenged” for the following reasons:


·       92.5% sexual content inappropriate for persons under 18

(typically including masturbation, sexual fantasies, and all GLBTQIA+ activities)

·       61.5% profane language, including off-color humor

·       49% persons under 18 carrying out adults-only activities

in narratives described as “unsuited to the intended age group”

·       26% real or implied criticism of mainstream religious tenets

·       23.5% GLBTQIA+ themes of almost any description,

except perhaps overpowering feelings of guilt and shame

·       19% violence, including suicide and premeditations of violent behavior

·       12.5% use of non-prescription drugs, including alcohol and tobacco,

along with the abuse of prescription drugs, including opioids:

also most drug culture and drug-induced states of mind

·       7% family dysfunctions, including child abuse and neglect

·       6.5% real or implied criticism of mainstream political viewpoints


         Actor Bill Cosby’s books Childhood, Fatherhood (a bestseller), and Time Flies have been banned because of their author’s highly publicized (and egregious) sexual assault convictions, as has his extensive (and influential) work on TV, from I Spy to Fat Albert to The Cosby Show.  Can the good deeds done by criminals, however rare they may be (and Cosby’s positive contributions to popular culture are far from rare or trivial), be ignored, even if they in no way make up for the bad deeds?  Should a criminal’s work be censored or restricted if it had nothing to do with the crimes committed?  It may not be easy to distinguish the crime from the criminal who committed it, particularly if sociopathic attitudes are expressed in the criminal’s work.  Few viewers see a misogynistic streak in The Cosby Show, for example, but some critics identify a sense of entitlement in the so-called “Pound Cake” speech he delivered in 2004, in which he criticized the state of parenting in the African American family:


“People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! And then we all run out and are outraged: ‘The cops shouldn't have shot him.’ What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand? I wanted a piece of pound cake just as bad as anybody else, and I looked at it and I had no money.  And something called parenting said, ‘If you get caught with it you're going to embarrass your mother.’ Not ‘You're going to get your butt kicked.’ No. ‘You're going to embarrass your family.’”


         Face it.  A lot of authors – and artists in general – were (and no doubt still are in some cases, truth be told) scoundrels in their personal lives whom we are better off never having met.  That doesn’t make their work, which should perhaps be published with a caveat, any less valuable to humanity.  Even if Bill Cosby’s Pound Cake speech was misguided, the multitalented, if occasionally sociopathic, actor, author, and comedian nonetheless has (or at least had) much to teach the world.  Many of us can teach by example how not to conduct our lives or relate to other people in spite of their erstwhile wholesome public personae.

         Similarly, should the literary merits, however slim, of a novel like Ayn Rand’s classic The Fountainhead (1943), which some see as a fine example of absurdist fiction, be ignored because the author later started what is essentially a personality cult largely based on her 1957 magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, a thousand-page tract expounding her (in our opinion) even more self-contradictory philosophy at mind-numbing length?  Besides, although somewhat derivative, her Romantic Manifesto remains a valuable resource for writers of fiction and nonfiction.

         Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl (1947 in Dutch, 1952 in English) is sometimes banned in Christian schools because its author was Jewish and Jews who don’t convert to Christianity are considered hellbound unbelievers.  A few schools have banned it because it narrates an unpleasant period in world history that many would prefer to forget.  The book is most often banned because its author, then in her mid-teens, briefly describes undergoing puberty and having her first sexual feelings.  The first edition was censored by its editor, the author’s father, but still draws the occasional objection.  A later, unexpurgated edition is slightly more explicit, but offers nothing out of the ordinary for a teenager learning about her own body and its drives, sexual and otherwise.  Do parents really believe children don’t experience such sentiments – urges, if you will – until they’re eighteen – or that these should remain suppressed?  How realistic are such expectations ultimately?

         Artists of all descriptions have seen their work challenged because of their erstwhile political affiliations.  Many struggling writers flirted with communism in the 1930s and 1940s, before the Soviet Union became the de facto archenemy of Western culture during the Cold War.  Most paid for it during the stifling McCarthy Era in the United States (1947-58) with its “loyalty tests” and infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.  George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) have both been challenged because of its (British) author’s supposed socialist leanings, which do inform both titles.  Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1946) embraces both communism and one of its best-known ideological ancestors, atheism - both taboo topics in America during the two decades after the end of World War II.  All-American author Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), a perennial bestseller, has been banned because of its alleged communist sympathies.  Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle, published in 1906, was criticized for being anticommunist and pro-socialist, it remains curiously relevant to this day.

         The words communism and socialism are still dirty words in much of America, as inflammatory as shit or fuck to many people.  It wasn’t that long ago that curious readers had to travel to special left-wing bookstores, sometimes all the way to an anarchist bookstore in the heart of the ghetto, to find noncritical works on either subject.  Readers might be asked why they were borrowing or (worse still) purchasing copies of Karl Marx’s Capital (1867-94 in German, 1887-1981 in English).  Instructors have been questioned over the years for assigning such subversive texts to high school and even college students.  Jack London’s Call of the Wild, as an example, is frequently challenged for its perceived socialist – some critics claim primitivist – outlook.

         Children who bring their own reading material into private schools and their libraries – perhaps to cross-reference the books’ literary sources – risk having the books confiscated by zealous school officials.  Alfred Hitchcock’s Let It All Bleed Out (1973), an anthology of completely tame mystery stories whose cover just happens to feature a painting of the famous film director giving Count Dracula a blood transfusion, was seized, held up for condemnation, and ultimately burned because an English teacher at such a school found it unsuitable for children.  So much for not judging a book by its cover.  Misunderstood humor often provides a basis for censorship.         



We’ve identified 26 major reasons for book challenges, one for each letter of the alphabet.











Drugs & drug culture4

Domestic violence5

Child abuse & neglect6


1The heading Abortion includes desiring, seeking, inducing, performing, or procuring an abortion; and sometimes using or contemplating the use of abortifacients (as in Dreiser’s American Tragedy).  The mere mention of the subject in passing elicited a ban on Ray Bradbury’s 1951 anti-censorship classic Fahrenheit 451.  Against the author’s wishes, an expurgated version was published for younger readers.  The main female character in Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) procures an abortion.  The 1977 film version starring Roger Moore and Barbara Bach uses the title but completely scraps the novel’s sensational plot.  Screenwriter Christopher Wood published his own novelization of the screenplay without the objectionable content.  All the James Bond novels have been challenged over the years for their hero’s inveterate womanizing. Also under the ban for abortion were William Faulkner’s Wild Palms (1939), Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971), and John Irving’s Cider House Rules (1985).


2Profanity includes all potentially objectionable language, from “God damn” to the n-word, along with suggestive language, double entendres, and sexual innuendos.  Kurt Vonnegut’s groundbreaking 1969 bestseller Slaughterhouse-Five offers its readers a potpourri of inventive foul language. With something to offend everyone, the novel is most often challenged because of its pacifism (Topic C below), sexual content (Topic S below), and general irreverence toward a variety of sacred cows (Topic T below).  It’s interesting that the most common verbs for using profanity are euphemisms: cursing, cussing, and swearing.  Horror master Stephen King’s best novels, notably The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978, expanded 1990), Firestarter (1980), Pet Sematary (1983), and Dolores Claiborne (1992), are well known (and widely restricted) for their heavy use of profanity.  


3Politics usually means subversive politics, including anarchy, and may involve actual or planned rebellion against lawful authority, including the police (sometimes even if the officers or administration are clearly corrupt).  An author’s or a character’s political viewpoints may raise objections even if they doesn’t noticeably impact the narrative.  Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is often challenged because of its author’s conservative political views, for instance, as well as her atheism.  Muckraking journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé of low-wage labor conditions in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001, also subtitled Undercover in Low-Wage America) is challenged because of its author’s liberal politics (and sometimes because she admits in the study to having smoked marijuana.)   


4The heading Drugs and drug culture includes the use and abuse of illegal and quasi-legal psychoactive substances, real or fictional, along with the mental, psychological, and even spiritual states they induce.  Alcohol, tobacco (including kretek), and virtually any dried vegetable matter that may be smoked or brewed into a tea may be considered drugs.  The topic encompasses societies and subcultures revolving around drug use.  Drug addiction turns up in the anonymously published 1971 YA novel Go Ask Alice and Bret Easton Ellis’s bestselling Less Than Zero (1985). However tame in comparison, Hermann Hesse’s visionary novel Steppenwolf (1927 in German, 1929 in English) is sometimes faulted for advocating drug use to expand the senses.   

     Samuel Delany’s Nova (1969), Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge (1987), and Jeff Noon’s Vurt (1993) all deal with aspects of drug use and abuse.  Though originally published as an anthropological study, Carlos Castañeda’s Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968), which explores the use of various hallucinogens, is now regarded as fiction.  All have been challenged for condoning or promoting drug use.


5Often arising from family dysfunction (Topic N below), general domestic discord (though see Topic N below), a toxic domestic atmosphere featuring verbal abuse (see Topic B above), and threats of Domestic violence are all included here.  Stieg Larsson’s crime novel The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006 in Swedish, 2009 in English), the second volume of the Millennium Trilogy, offers more than most readers care to deal with, as does Jodi Picoult’s Picture Perfect (1995).  Even 19th-century classic tales like Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story “The Black Cat” and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (1881) have drawn their share of criticism from concerned parents, teachers, and clerics over the years for their depictions of this perennially touchy subject. 


6Child abuse and neglect may be portrayed from the viewpoint of parents, children, other family members, professionals (including the clergy), or otherwise uninvolved witnesses.  Narratives often focus on the legal implications of who should intervene, and if so when and how, and also on whose silence or complicity might be inadvertently perpetuating the problem.  Child abuse figures prominently in Stephen King’s Carrie (1974), often banned because of its occult themes (Topic O below) and apparent criticism of religion (Topic T below).  It should be noted that these assessments are based more on Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation, which features occult tropes and religious stereotypes, than on the actual novel.  V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic (1979) and its four sequels feature dysfunctional families that perpetrate a variety of violent acts on each other.  Incorporating incest, rape, and murder, it is less often questioned as suitable reading material for children than Stephen King’s novels, in part because of its author’s subdued writing style.  Dave Pelzer’s memoir A Child Called “It” (1995) more than compensates for any cruelty V.C. Andrews soft-pedaled.  Based on a true story, Jack Ketchum’s Girl Next Door (1989) plumbs the depths of human depravity in its vivid portrayal of child abuse.  Bizarro fiction luminary Cameron Pierce’s novella Ass Goblins of Auschwitz (2009) inventively metaphorizes a similar situation.









Mature choices for the young1

Death and dying2


Unpleasant history4

Sexual aberrations: “kink”5

Psychological abnormalities6


1The heading Mature choices for young characters involves adult situations foisted (usually by circumstance beyond their control) onto children who would traditionally have caregivers on whom to rely for help in coping with them.  Children may be blamed for deliberately stepping into stereotypically adult situations, such as by breaking the law or running away from home - or adult influence may be implicated.  This category includes children’s exposure to the eye-opening, often harsh and usually confusing realities of adult living before they are emotionally prepared to deal with them, like Emma Donoghue’s solipsistic Room (2010) and Paula Hawkins’s Girl on the Train (2015).  Books featuring these encounters are often flagged “unsuitable for the intended age group,” such as Natasha Friend’s YA novel Lush (2006) in which an impressionable teenager is forced to confront her father’s alcoholism.


2Death and dying embrace all aspects of dying, from the diagnosis of terminal illness, to death sentences and executions, to the process of dying, to near-death experiences, to the afterlife.  Necrophilia falls under this heading as well.  Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 black humor novel The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy and Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori (1958) have been challenged for treating death lightly.  Cavalier attitudes toward the afterlife, a major concern for some readers with vested interested in the hope of heaven and the horrors of hell, appear in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985).


3Incest covers sexual fantasies and acts involving blood relatives, stepparents, stepsiblings, and stepchildren, as in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.  With underage children it’s indistinguishable from Rape (Topic P below) and typically includes Child abuse (Topic F above).  Those who contemplate, condone, enable, ignore, or cover up such behavior may also be implicated, as in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929).  Most readers, discouraged by the author’s idiosyncratic style (which nonetheless effectively captures his characters’ complex interior monologues), make it to that point in the novel.  Grace Metalious’s bestseller Peyton Place (1956) presents the issue in slightly bowdlerized form, at its editor’s insistence, but still draws complaints because of its frankness.  Its title has become a byword for a scandal-ridden small town.


4Unpleasant history may be personal, familial, regional, national, or world history whose ugly facts may cause feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, or even a desire for revenge today.  Skeletons not only come out of the closet but demand to have their woeful histories heard.  Persons who weren’t alive at the time can’t be held accountable for the actions of their forebears, but they can still live in an unequitable world with its roots in embarrassing historical antecedents, such as apartheid, chattel slavery and the Holocaust.  Art Spiegelman’s controversial graphic novel Maus (1981) has recently been banned in Tennessee for its fictional representation of the Holocaust.  Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works, beginning with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962, have been banned at various times and places, mostly for their criticism of Stalinist politics.  Bryce Courtenay’s Power of One (1989) was banned in South Africa due to its criticism of apartheid (and possibly for its main character’s immortal line, “The Lord is a shithead”).


5Sexual aberrations and “kink” comprise sexual practices and situations deemed unusual.  Narratives with virtually any sexual content not cloaked in musty shibboleths (like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded) or heavy-handed symbolism (like John Steinbeck’s story “The Chrysanthemums”) may be challenged by purists, but these practices are likely to be considered out of the ordinary by the average person, like the crossdressing in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which is most often banned because of its frank language (Topic B above) and sexually explicit drawings by the author (Topic X below).


6Psychological abnormalities may befall young and old alike, and may include any number of medical conditions commonly characterized (though perhaps not always fairly) as “disorders.” The major categories are anxiety disorders (such as OCD, phobias, and PTSD), mood disorders (such as bipolar disorder, major depression, and dysthymia or minor depression), psychotic disorders (such as delusional disorder, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder), personality disorders (such as antisocial, borderline, and avoidant personality disorders), eating disorders (such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder), and dementia (such as delirium and major neurocognitive disorder), among others.  Experts often disagree about how these conditions should be assessed and treated, and not everyone who exhibits them can afford professional medical care.  Many don’t realize they have a problem or whether they can manage it with therapy or medication or both.  Alan Moore’s comic series Neonomicon (2010-11) is partially set in a psychiatric hospital, for instance, and has drawn objections for its seemingly cavalier attitude toward mental patients. 

     Psychological problems place huge burdens of various sorts on both individuals and families, and it’s long been a tradition in the United States to keep quiet about them in public, even when talking to someone might be the best solution for everyone involved.  Then again it may not, so we have to exercise discretion.  It goes without saying that unless these conditions are brought into the public eye and presented accurately, fewer people will know how to recognize the symptoms and learn how and where to get the help they need to deal with their complexities.  Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho, based on the true story of serial killer Ed Gein and made famous by its 1960 film adaptation, though it was influenced somewhat by Fredric Brown’s Screaming Mimi (1949, filmed in 1958), broke new ground in terms of presenting mental incapacity in print, paving the way for Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962, filmed 1975) and Sylvia Plath’s roman à clef The Bell Jar (1963, filmed 1979 but made unavailable), and Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964, filmed 1977).  Novelist Mary Jane Ward had already exposed the horrors of mental institutions in her semiautobiographical novel The Snake Pit (1946, filmed 1948).  Critics of these works typically concluded that mental illness was a personal problem that rarely if ever resulted from a neurodiverse individual’s interactions with society at large.









Murder methodology1

Family dysfunction2

Occult realms3


GLBTQIA+ culture5

Racism and ethnocentrism6


1Murder is fairly common in literature and seldom raises objections unless it is presented in such exquisite detail that it arouses feelings of horror rather than the pity readers expect to feel in response such descriptions, like those in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) or Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River.  It is instead what we call the methodology of murder and its premeditation that elicit bans.  Edgar Allan Poe’sTell-Tale Heart(1843), for example, has raised objections because of its brief reference to the dismemberment of a dead body.  Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial American Psycho (1991), in contrast, serves up a string of intensely brutal murders with a cold side of misogyny (Topic Y below) to prove its point about the superficiality of capitalism.   The surreal quality of the writing barely eases the reader’s discomfort.  Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996) combines sex (Topic S below) and anarchy with premeditated violence (Topic V below) and attempted suicide (Topic U below) to strike a similar chord in its critique of traditional masculinity.  The novel has been banned for all these reasons and more.  Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962, US edition expanded 1986) uses stylized depictions of violence on numerous levels in its defense of human freewill. Murderers portrayed sympathetically, as in Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr. Ripley (1956) or Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood (1966), may likewise trigger challenges.  Both books feature gay subtexts that censorious librarians might have missed.


2Family dysfunction goes back as far as the sibling rivalry of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-18; I John 3:12; Quran 5:27-32) and naturally takes a variety of forms.  The most common motif is that of the misfit, like Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), which is usually banned for its profanity (Topic B above) and psychological aberrations (Topic L above).  In Ellen Hopkins’s YA novel Burned (2006), it’s the apparent nonconformist who seems most normal to the average reader and rest of the family that’s dysfunctional.  The book is usually challenged for its depiction of an abusive Latter-day Saints family (Topic T below).

     Forbidden love and romance also fall under this heading, as in Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier (1973). Permissive parenting can be an issue covered under this category, especially if it tolerates to premarital sex, as in Judy Blume’s Forever… (1975).  But even a marriage seemingly made in heaven can end up on the rocks, and an adulterous fling may relieve the ennui, as in Kate Chopin’s 1899 story The Awakening,” a feminist classic sometimes judged by its critics to be antifamily.  Men are still more easily forgiven for their dalliances than women, as in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1961), which takes a lyrically poetic approach to family dysfunction.  In Naomi Klein’s Family Secrets (1985), the titular mysteries come to light at the worst possible moments. 

     Even undisputed classics like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) have drawn the wrath of a few librarians with its somewhat antiquated family values.  At one point the heroine was planning to marry out of a sense of duty and not for love.   


3Occult realms comprise the supernatural worlds of the imagination.  For many religious persons (of varying persuasions), these are the all too real dominions of the devil and his demons serving as gateways to damnation.  The wildly popular Harry Potter series offers a veritable compendium of objectionable material.  All magical powers not wielded by God or His angels – or the occasional prophet (like Elijah) or saint (like the Virgin of Guadalupe) – are ipso facto the works of Satan, Archenemy of God, their ultimate purpose being to put mortals in hell for doubting God’s crystal-clear revelations.  Astrologers, crystal gazers, magicians (other than those who perform feats of legerdemain on stage, and even a few of them are suspect), mediums, palm readers, psychics, seers, shamans, soothsayers, sorcerers, tarot readers, wizards, and witches are seen as Satan’s not-so-secret agents, even if they’ve dedicated their lives (and powers) to doing good – like Esme in Kate M. Williams’s The Babysitters [sic] Coven (2019).  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900, expanded 1903) and its many sequels are occasionally challenged to this day for pitting good witches against their wicked counterparts by those who know there’s no such thing as a good witch.  Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (1995) has been burned a few times, though not necessarily at the stake, by religious groups who practice book burning.  A few private schools still purge their curricula in this manner as well.

     It goes without saying that narratives about occult phenomena such as discarnate spirits, ghosts, werewolves, and vampires populate Satan’s shadowy realms and mustn’t be allowed to influence impressionable children.  Some critics extend the definition to include extraterrestrials.  The works of C.S. Lewis often come under fire from evangelical authorities such as Jack T. Chick.  Even reportedly true stories about UFOs and alien abductions are often taboo.  Those in the know understand that such craft are piloted by evil spirits.  Demonic possession is completely real, of course, but fictional representations like William Peter Blatty’s 1971 bestseller The Exorcist can’t be trusted.  Though probably fitting for demons, its language has been deemed too vulgar for younger readers.

     Occult doctrines such as reincarnation are similarly forbidden, even if they’re rooted in world religions.  They are thought to litter the pathway to hell.  Occult nonfiction, for some a contradiction in terms, is easily the most deleterious genre of all, and for much the same reason.  Eden Gray’s Complete Guide to the Tarot (1970), despite its chapter on numerology, is considered a guidebook to perdition and as such is frequently burned in churches across the country.  



4Rape is defined as sexual contact (up to and including intercourse) forced on someone against their will.  It may be perpetrated by means of abuse of authority, coercion, threats, or physical force, which may or may not result in injury.  Sexual assault inflicted on a person who is for whatever reason unable to grant conscious and reasoned consent, such as a person who is unconscious, under the influence of intoxicants, mentally incapacitated, or below the lawful age of consent (which varies from locale to locale), is also considered rape.  Opinions differ somewhat as to whether consent can be granted before a sex act and then withdrawn before it’s completed, and to what extent rape can take place within the context of marriage.  (Most contemporary readers would agree that consent can be suspended at any time and that even spouses must consent to sexual activity, with no traditional vow of obedience abrogating that fundamental right.  Situations may differ in older works, such as Winston Graham’s 1961 thriller Marnie, inspired as it was by Shakespeare’s early-1590s comedy The Taming of the Shrew.)

     Child sexual abuse is considered a form of rape because children can’t legally grant consent.  The age of consent varies from region to region and even sometimes between the sexes.  Until recently, young women in some jurisdictions had to establish that they were “of previous chaste character,” sometimes defined as being a virgin, before any sexual conduct against her could be considered criminal – and husbands were granted free access to their wives’ bodies at all times based in large part on an interpretation of I Corinthians 7:4.  Readers can imagine how racism figured into such equations.  Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita (1955 in France, expanded 1958 in the United States) explores the sexual relationship between a twelve-year-old girl and a much older sexual predator interested in “nymphets.”  Many find the noel insightful, while others can’t believe it was ever published by a reputable company.  Many feel the topic shouldn’t be discussed in public outside a forensic setting such as a courtroom or crime lab.  Though the author knew he was taking risks with the subject at the time, the term pedophilia, which the novel in no way condones, was seldom applied to it until the 1980s, when attitudes toward the subject had clearly changed.  Marguerite Duras’ semiautobiographical novel The Lover (1984 in French, 1986 in English) relates a similar story from a woman’s point of view.  In recent years the topic has been reappraised in books like Alissa Nutting’s Tampa (2013), in which a female sexual predator, or hebephile, seduces her 14-year-old male student.   

     John Grisham’s 1989 bestseller A Time to Kill describes the racially-motivated rape of a child in graphic detail.  James Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) shows more restraint with essentially the same subject matter.  The novel is also challenged for its gay, Black author’s reference to masturbation (Topic W below) and other forms of sex.  Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943) both feature rapes that seem almost romanticized by the narratives, perhaps as a testament to both authors’ grandiose visions of life.  Consent, after all, is a complicated beast no matter how carefully it’s approached.  Men are raped in James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970), Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides (1986), and Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin (1996).


5GLBTQIA+ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and So Forth) Culture draws objections on a number of levels from those who believe homosexuality and transgender identity are somehow unnatural and therefore immoral.  With its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, such as Plato’s Symposium, which proposes a mythical theory of the origin of same-sex attraction, queer literature flourished thereafter during the relatively infrequent and typically brief periods when sexual nonconformity in general was tolerated by mainstream society.  Gothic fiction from Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) broke new ground by exploring the simultaneously enticing and terrifying aspects of queer desire.  Both are banned today due to their occult themes (Topic O above).  Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1897), now available in an uncensored version, demonstrated the diversity of fin de siècle gay subculture that would be lost on critics who noticed only its decadence.  To the extent that they were mentioned at all, lesbians fared somewhat better in literature than their gay male counterparts, as in Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 vampire novella Carmilla.  General readers of Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness (1928) imagined that gays and lesbians felt cursed by a sense of alienation from the opposite sex, not realizing they were beginning to form a community of similarly oriented individuals.  For decades the only truly erudite novel written for lesbians, it ends with the prayer, “Give us also the right to our existence.”

     Narratives that even hint that queer love might blossom in the world and produce something other than guilt, shame, and misery meet with almost immediate objection in certain parts of the country.  Walt Whitman’s poetry collection Leaves of Grass (1855, expanded through 1892) and Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) have kindled particular ire over the decades, though neither book is sexually explicit.  Leaves of Grass makes reference to masturbation (Topic W below).  Both American classics celebrate the beauty of queerness in a way that many critics refuse to acknowledge – or tolerate.  The same sentiments occur randomly in works like Herman Melville’s sprawling classic Moby-Dick (1851) for those who care to look for them.

      Beginning in the 1950s, queer literature was mostly directed at its gay and lesbian niche markets.  Vin Packer’s paperback original Spring Fire (1952) was sold in bus stations and drugstores for reading by lesbians and straight men alike.  Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, introduced a relatively happy ending to the subgenre.  Both faced bans only after they emerged into the mainstream in the 1980s, though they may have been seized on college campuses for “promoting an unhealthy lifestyle for women” that was not focused on marriage and childrearing.  Gay pulp novels of the period were more sexually explicit and seldom interested non-gay readers.  With few exceptions, like Victor J. Banis’s The Why Not (1966), a lighthearted look at gay bar culture, most quickly faded into obscurity after their first publication.   John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), Gordon Merrick’s The Lord Won’t Mind (1970), and Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind (1982) have elicited challenges because of their popularity.

     Finally, some authors “come out,” as it were, only after their deaths.  All their books may be “reevaluated” and then challenged as a result, like E.M. Forster’s Maurice.



6Racism pervades human society on a wide range of levels.  It begins with the belief that the various “races” of humanity, somewhat arbitrary concepts to begin with since they all overlap to a large extent, are linked to specific abilities, dispositions, and other character traits.  Thus for example all green Martians are thought to reason analytically and repress their emotions, while the more rarely encountered blue Martians tend to demonstrate their emotions openly but have difficulty controlling their tempers.  Gray Martians excel at swimming and related aquatic sports, while the seldom seen purple Martians avoid settling close to bodies of water.  It proceeds to a complex series of actions and customs intended to deal with these differences, whether they’re real, meaningful, or simply perceived.  Depending on the geographic location and historical circumstances, one group, the so-called majority or dominant culture, exercises political and economic power over other, minority groupings. The term racism is also used to describe implied bias or outright discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin, again on a number of levels.  Ethnocentrism refers to the same set of prejudices related to ethnic, cultural, and religious origins

     The United States was founded on the Enlightenment Era principle that “all men [at the time understood to mean all people] are created equal [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Even so, racial bias is embedded in the Constitution, its governing document.  It allows chattel slavery, for example, and for the purpose of electing representatives to Congress values slaves as three-fifths (or 60%) of a free man.  No specific reference is made to race, though Native American “Indians” were singled out for exclusion unless they paid taxes.  (Women weren’t allowed to vote at the time.) 

     The young nation grappled with this obvious contradiction, which resulted from a compromise between Northern and Southern states, for decades.  It was literature that openly challenged this bias that drew the harshest criticism.  

     James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (1826) and its sequels depict Native Americans as stereotypical “noble savages” being driven off their ancestral lands by westward expansion, which was widely considered morally superior to “indigenous” lifestyles due to European settlers’ advanced technology.  (the novel has also been challenged because of its depiction of Violence (Topic V below.)  The Latter-day Saints Prophet Joseph Smith (1805-44), putative “translator” of the Book of Mormon (1830), possibly inspired by Ethan Smith’s fictional work View of the Hebrews (1823), taught that Native Americans were descended from the Lamanites, a Semitic group unknown to secular archaeology who allegedly migrated to the New World from the Biblical Kingdom of Israel (by means of Imperial Judah) about 600 BCE.  The Lamanites were later cursed with “a skin of blackness” for their disobedience (II Nephi 5:21), which could presumably be “lightened” again, at least figuratively, by means of repentance.   

     Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) was criticized by slaveholders and their supporters for “humanizing” enslaved persons, who were believed to be savages incapable of “advanced” social development.  However well-intentioned, the novel later came under fire for drawing on simplistic stereotypes to make its author’s point.  The African American characters in the novel waited passively for the more intelligent and resourceful white man to rescue them.  Mark Twain used unadulterated language to portray true-to-life relationships among the races.  His Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), an early example of counter-racism is still challenged for its liberal use of the n-word, though that’s always in context, and for its racial stereotypes. Expurgated versions are available for those who insist on reading them.  Joseph Conrad’s  1897 novella The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (originally titled Children of the Sea) is occasionally restricted in libraries, often out of fear it might be defaced, and was recently issued with the cleaned-up title The N-Word of the “Narcissus.” 

     Books by Black authors, like comedian Dick Gregory’s ironically titled Nigger: An Autobiography (1964) and Cecil Brown’s Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger (1969) fared better with censors, in part because they sold in different markets, where they were viewed as iconoclastic, even transgressive, in their depictions of the African American experience.  Books like Ricard Wright’s Native Son (1946) and Song of Solomon (1977) were charged with promoting anti-White sentiment.  Books by White authors like sociologist Dalton Conley’s memoir Honky (2000) have attracted criticism for being self-deprecating.

     Racism extends beyond Black and White, of course, and it is in no way confined to the United States.  Law professor Frank H. Wu’s 2002 study Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White looks at race relations among a variety of ethnic groups.  C.Y. Lee’s 1957 novel The Flower Drum Song is occasionally challenged for being “anti-American,” as has John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957), which is also seen as anti-military.

     Ethnic stereotypes abound in literature.  Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (ca. 1598), Fagin in Dicken’s Oliver Twist (1838), George du Maurier’s Svengali in Trilby (1894), Meyer Wolfshiem in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925), and Colleoni in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) are all anti-Semitic stereotypes, just as Ahmed is an Arab and Muslim stereotype in E.M. Hull’s 1919 bestseller The Sheik.               










Criticism of religion




Suggestive drawings or photos


1Human sexuality in many respects forms the basis of life itself, and thus motivates much of not most of the action in literature.  This motivation isn’t limited to sexual intercourse, of course, but embraces sexual attraction, both requited and unrequited love, romance, traditional and nontraditional sex roles in society, sexual rivalry, jealousy, envy, premarital sex, extramarital sex, endogamy, exogamy, hypergamy (“marrying up,”) hypogamy (“marrying down”), dating, courtship, engagement, family ties, childbearing, birth control (usually not including Abortion, Topic A above), adoption, childrearing, widowhood, multiple marriage, separation, divorce, custody issues, remarriage, blended families, step-parenting, grand-parenting, menopause, andropause, and any number of sexual paraphilia (except Masturbation, Topic W below).  Sex has been described as everyone’s personal obsession – we think about it day and night, dream about it, feel its pull on our bodies, yield to it when we know we shouldn’t, and often go to great lengths to master it.  Part of the means we use to control its influence in our lives is to keep unrestrained expressions of it out of reach of children.  As curious about its functions as adults are, they often find inventive ways to access these expressions on their own, often in spite our best efforts to conceal them.  As parents and guardians of human sexuality, we can at best hope to explain its functions to impressionable youth before any serious misunderstandings development.  To accomplish that we have to be shrewd, wise, and well-informed – in a word, literate.  References to sex, whether covert, overt, or simply implied, make up the most common reason books are challenged.      

     The Bible, to begin with, is unabashedly sexual, guiding us from the creation of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:7-18, 21-25) to the judgment of the Great Whore (Revelation 19:2).  It has been banned at many times and in many places.  Certain versions, deemed heretical by the prevailing authorities despite their intent to bring clarity to meaning of the text, have even been burned.  Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales have been restricted for sexual content and general bawdiness.  In a few school districts, parents are required to sign a release allowing their high school seniors to read the work.  Those who opt out are provided with less provocative literature to study, perhaps the Hardy Boys mysteries or the Bobbsey Twins adventure novels – all commendable literature, it must be said, but hardly mature.  The most skillful writing challenges the mind without always or even necessarily ever putting it at ease.

     Jonathan Swift’s larger-than-life satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726) if often banned due to its sexual context and overall irreverence, as are Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), Voltaire’s Candide (1759), and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1767). Nineteenth-century authors exercised a bit more restraint (the novels of Jane Austen (1775-1817), the three Brontë sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65), and George Eliot (1819-80) and are virtually never banned.  Works by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63), Charles Dickens (1812-70), and Sir Anthony Trollope (1815-82) are seldom challenged – though they may not always be available in private schools because of the works’ primarily secular viewpoints.  Easily the most popular among the four, Dickens infamously separated from his wife and took a much younger mistress.  To some he commercialized Christmas, but his earlier works are still admired.  In Russia, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Count Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev were often too dark and deep to avoid occasional challenges in the United States.  Critics tend not to want the unconscious mind to emerge into the light.  Neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) made the unconscious a topic of general conversation at the turn of the 20th century, whereupon his works were challenged by those happily ensconced in the status quo as it was then known.

     As a subset of sexuality, prostitution, popularly known as the world’s oldest profession, figures prominently in literature, often the object of serious double standards.  In the Torah, for instance, the patriarch Judah accosts a veiled woman he encounters along a roadside, believing her to be a prostitute.  Later, when his widowed daughter-in-law is discovered to be pregnant out of wedlock, he gives orders to have her burned to death, not realizing she was the veiled woman he’d met along the road.  She had seduced him, it comes to light, so she wouldn’t die unwed and childless. Acknowledging the wisdom of her ways, the patriarch relents immediately and accepts her (and later her twin sons) into the family (Genesis 38:6-27 and Babylonian Talmud Sotah 10b).  Prostitutes and tax collectors famously responded to Jesus’ ministry more enthusiastically than the self-righteous (Matthew 21:31), traditionally because he offered them deliverance (Matthew 11:28).  In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, a primitive man, is taught manners by Shamhat, a sacred prostitute.

     Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (ca. 1400) mention the subject a few times in passing, particularly the Shipman’s Tale, and the tawdry topic turns up in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604), which involves a sort of religious reform.  Critics aren’t sure how seriously Shakespeare took the whole idea, so they play is sometimes excluded from high school curricula.  In a few cases students have been required to secure written parental permission before being allowed to read unexpurgated versions of these works, which are occasionally referred to humorously as “unprotected texts.”

    Daniel Defoe’s Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724) takes a more nuanced view of the subject in its portrayal of a woman who learns to value her own independence above family ties.  It has been embraced by feminists (who disdain the same author’s 1719 classic Robinson Crusoe) and just as often pushed away by fundamentalists.  Its antiquated writing style will dissuade readers of an otherwise excellent novel.  John Cleland’s perennially popular Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748), subtitled Fanny Hill, takes readers into a busy 18th-century brothel where the heroine meets an assortment of sex-crazed characters.  However valuable the novel may be to historians, sociologists, and disciples of Sigmund Freud, it’s normally banned below college level, though high schoolers interested in the “classics” might be able find a copy available at their local bookstore.  Stephen Crane’s 1893 novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets has drawn fire for its realistic depiction of the darker side of prostitution, as has Jack Kerouac’s Tristessa (1960), Paul Theroux’s Saint Jack (1973) Keith Lee Johnson’s Little Black Girl Lost (2008)

     As far back as Rahab in the Hebrew Bible, literary prostitutes portrayed as the clichéd “hooker with a heart of gold” can be redeemed in readers’ eyes and thus survive censorship challenges.  These abound in popular fiction, from Nancy in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838) to Sonya in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) to the title character in Richard Mason’s World of Suzie Wong (1957).  Prostitutes who die horrible deaths, like Émile Zola’s Nana, may be saved from the literary scrap heap by teaching readers a cautionary lesson about the wages of sin.

     Male prostitution is covered in Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal (1949 in French, 1964 in English), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), James Leo Herlihy’s Midnight Cowboy (1965), and Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band (1968).   



2Criticism of religion is implicit in religion itself.  Judaism took exception to the idolatry of the Egyptians and the Canaanites, for instance, Christianity to the centrality of Torah in Judaism, and Islam to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.  Sects continue to break off from “mother traditions,” as it were, over outwardly circumstantial differences, and sometimes evolve into full-fledged denominations.  Religions can become intolerant and oppressive as they gain secular power, and the human spirit naturally rebels against such limitations.  Thus Moses led the Children of Israel out of the house of bondage (Exodus 13:3).  Jesus came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18).  Muhammad, “the unlettered prophet…relieves [his followers] of their burden and the shackles which were upon them” (Quran 7:157).

    The Roman Catholic Church maintained its Index of Forbidden Books from 1559 until 1966, when Jacqueline Susann’s revolutionary roman à clef Valley of the Dolls was published.  There is no direct connection between the book’s publication and the abolition of the Index, but Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (1890-1979) observed that April that there was now too much contemporary literature for the newly-formed Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to keep track of it all.  The literary world had obviously gone to hell in a handbasket.  The Index often listed authors instead of specific works, among them Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), René Descartes (1596-1650), John Milton (1608-74), Blaise Pascal (1623-62), Baruch Spinoza (1632-77), Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), David Hume (1711-76), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Victor Hugo (1802-85), Gustave Flaubert (1821-80), André Gide (1869-1951), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) – a veritable who’s-who of world literature.  Naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82) was curiously not named on the Index, though many religious institutions ban his work to this day.  The 1983 Code of Canon Law still gives bishops the right to “review material concerning faith or morals before it may be published” (Canon 823 §1).  Authors could be challenged because they weren’t Catholic, had criticized one or more church doctrines – Copernicus and Galileo took on the church’s Biblically based cosmology – or had simply run afoul of the (usually Catholic) powers that be.

     The faithful don’t appreciate religious satire, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), in which citizens of the far future revere (Henry) Ford (as a champion of human progress and innovation) instead of the Lord.  The take oaths to “my Ford” and make the sign of the (Model) T when they join others in prayer.  Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: or, Over the Range (1872) faced similar criticism for its satirical portrayal of the Church of England.  Because it also poked fun at Darwin’s theory of evolution, positing that machines too were evolving and posed a danger to human beings, it is seldom read nowadays.  Its sequel, Erewhon Revisted (1901), narrates the rise of a powerful messianic figure not unlike Gore Vidal’s Kalki (1978). 

     Literary portraits of religious hypocrites, like Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1926), often draw criticism. Kurt Vonnegut’s thought-provoking satire Cat’s Cradle takes an anthropologist’s view of religion with its presentation of Bokononism, an absurdist cult fabricated to meet the needs of an impoverished society and then outlawed to increase its appeal to the masses. Essentially a form of fatalism, it accomplishes its purpose in giving its followers a reason to live – until even that is taken away from them by.  Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon (1918-85) praised it for being “appalling, hilarious, shocking, and infuriating” before it was banned as “sick” and “garbage.”  Its themes obviously soared over certain readers’ heads.

     Non-Christian religions, and even certain Christian denominations, such as Christian Science, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, often meet with opposition.  Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health might be excluded from Christian school libraries, as would Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon, and the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.  Ellen G. White’s Seventh-day Adventist Church has moved into the Protestant mainstream after over a century of exclusion.  All these denominations are considered cults by some Christians, as are any religions not based on the “canonical” Christian New Testament.  Only books that are critical of world religions, often including Judaism, are likely to appear in private school libraries.  Among these are Buddhist Warfare (2010) edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer; Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), which was banned in India for offending “religious sentiments”; Rebekah Simon-Peter’s The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message (2013); and Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (2014).  Knowing too much about other religions might lead to defection in the ranks of believers.

     A fatwa or religious order demanding the execution of British-American author Salman Rushdie (1947-  ) was issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.  Author of The Satanic Verses (1988), Rushdie lived in hiding for many years after that.

     Books like Huston Smith’s classic The World’s Religions (1958, revised 1986 and 1991) might conceivably escape the ban compares it compares the world’s faiths but devotes the longest section to Christianity.



3Suicide is almost a fact of life – perhaps more accurately defined as a means of death – that turns up in literature with some frequency.  It’s a narrative’s attitude toward the admittedly sensitive subject, whether clearly stated or implied, that galvanizes critics.  The subject must never be romanticized lest it influence anyone sad or depressed enough to contemplate ending their own lives.  Specific details must be kept to a minimum, as they certainly weren’t in Bret Easton Ellis’s Rules of Attraction (1987), which is usually banned for other reasons as well.  Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Sufferings of Young Werther (also known as The Sorrows of Young Werther) features a melodramatic suicide by shotgun and unintentionally spawned a rash of self-destructive behavior after its publication in 1774. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877) presents suicide almost as an act of penance, and Brave New World (1932) ends with its one religious character’s hanging himself after finding no place to take refuge in a corrupt world.  The death in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s timeless novella Little Prince (1943 in French and English) may also be understood as a suicide. 

     Suicide can occasionally be excused if its perpetrator is shown to be of unsound mind, like Quentin Compson in Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury – or just plain evil, like Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (1606).  It may be condoned, at least by some, as a form of self-sacrifice, as with Sydney Carton’s identity switch in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities (1859).  Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) explores the many reasons a teenager might consider committing suicide.  Though frequently challenged, it proposes workable solutions for suicide prevention.     


4Violence is another disturbing fact of life that we all deal with in varying degrees.  If sexuality is described as “Life’s longing for itself” (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet [1923], often challenged for its perceived immorality and an imprecise, that is, not exclusively fundamentalist Christian, religious viewpoint), violence may similarly be similarly described as Life’s struggle with itself, usually over limited resources such as food, housing, money, loyalty, love, and power.

     The Bible is filled with violence: order is brought out of chaos, but chaos never completely retreats; God opposes Satan; Cain slays Abel; the Promised Land is won by force and maintained, often precariously, through subjugation of indigenous peoples; tyrants rise up, abuse their power, and topple; reformers purge the kingdom of idolaters; foreign empires take captives and sometimes erase their identities; prophets are exiled and sometimes martyred for preaching the word of God; God Himself demands sacrifice, and Jesus arises in Galilee, a border region far removed from the mainstream, to fulfill that demand by submitting to crucifixion; people rebel against oppression and are scattered; new interpretations of old scriptures arise and cause discord; and the battle between good and evil, the one not always clearly distinguishable from the other, rages on to this day.  Battles are fought over what should and shouldn’t be included in the Bible, how it should be translated, when its teachings should be allowed to supersede reason and logic, and which interpretation holds most closely to God’s original intent.

     The foundational works of Western canon of literature, Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, describe a catastrophic war and its aftermath, the hero’s struggle to avoid death and regain his home and family.  This rough scenario plays out in successive generations of war novels, among them The Luck of Barry Lyndon (also published as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1844), Émile Zola’s The Débâcle (1892), Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage (1895), Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1938), Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Norman Mailer’s Naked and the Dead (1948), Graham Greene’s Quiet American (1958), and Tim O’Brien’s Things They Carried (1990), and Kevin Powers’s Yellow Birds (2012).  These have been challenged almost as often by the pro-war crowd as they have by the anti-war crowd, with the Vietnam War (1955-75) being the most controversial.  Even works in the alternate history subgenre of science fiction might elicit a ban if they seem politically incorrect, like Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle (1962), in which the Axis Powers win World War II and divide the United States between Germany and Japan.  Adapted into a TV series long after its author’s death, the novel has been defended by books written to support its distinctive vision.   

     Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo (1846 in French, 1847 in English) traces the history of a personal vendetta pursued to its logical conclusion.  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, expanded 1902) strikes some critics as a literary exercise in brutality.  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), and Mario Puzo’s classic The Godfather (1969) immerse readers in violent worlds that critics have found objectionable.  More recently, Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), Iain Bank’s Wasp Factory (1984), Lois Lowry’s YA novel The Giver (1994), have all been challenged for their violent content. The sexual coercion in John Fowles’s 1963 novel The Collector has also drawn criticism, and Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995 in Japanese, 1997 in English) is sometimes banned for a single intensely violent scene.



5Masturbation is another fact of life, and arguably the most common sex act on the planet, that until recently polite society had no interest in discussing openly lest they be thought to encourage the practice.  It was almost everyone’s dirty little secret.  Those who indulged in it were made to feel guilty and ashamed by authority figures who more often than not had other sexual outlets, and those who did not were often ridiculed as peculiar or self-righteous by their peers.  It’s not strictly prohibited in the Bible: in Genesis 38:9 God slays Onan for a completely different reason – he surely wasn’t the first to “discover” masturbation – and Leviticus 26:16 makes no reference to sexual activity. 

     In the New Testament, Mark 9:43-44 doesn’t specify what particular sin the hand is supposed to be committing, and the passage is widely believed to be figurative rather than literal anyway.  The early apostles’ warnings to “possess [one’s] vessel in sanctification and honour” (I Thessalonians 4:4) make no explicit reference to masturbation.  Clement of Alexandria, however, an early Church Father, wrote that semen shouldn’t be “wasted” through masturbation (Paedagogus 2:10).  The ancients in general believed the supply to be far more limited than it is.  In the Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 2:1 suggests that men who “examine themselves” frequently should have their hands cut off, lest such handling lead to an inadvertent emission.  The Aramaic verb qatzatz used in the text might mean “remove from a place,” or colloquially “cut it out,” instead of the more literal “sever.”  

     A few Islamic authorities permit it as an unavoidable vice, but many interpret Quran 23:5-7 to be a prohibition: “And [those] who guard their modesty save from their wives or the [slaves] that their right hands possess, for then they are not blameworthy, but whoso craves [anything] beyond that, such are transgressors.”  Eastern religions generally tend to be more tolerant of the practice. 

     In his Lectures on Genesis Chapters 38-44, Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) called masturbation “a most disgraceful sin…far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity: yes, a Sodomitic sin [presumably like homosexuality].” Practitioners of either “vice” could be executed in Puritan New England.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church, updated in 1992, teaches that even now it “is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action” (paragraph 2352).  A few fundamentalist pastors obsess over it to this day.  Because of the “impure thoughts” typically involved in the process, Mormons require their young, unmarried missionaries to “abandon the practice as it is believed to be a gateway sin that dulls sensitivity to the guidance of the Holy Ghost” (Spencer W. Kimball in Love vs. Lust).  Congregational pastor C. Matthew McMahon wrote, “If any form of sin is a product of lust, then it is an evil and wicked action. If a man masturbates while watching a sensual movie, then he has sinned. When masturbation grows out of a sense of this need for physical release due to unclean thoughts, it is sin… Self-love, turning to lust, is at the heart of masturbation...” (Overcoming Lust in a Sex-Crazed World, 2005). Writing in the Baptist Press, Rev. David Platt maintains that it “goes against the design of God [Who] designed sex to be relational; masturbation is lustful.”   And some people have the nerve to dismiss Christopher Durang’s controversial play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979) as religious pornography.

     Doctors considered it a health risk through most of the 18th and 9th centuries.  In his Medicinal Dictionary (1743-45), English physician Robert James (1703-76) opined that “there is perhaps no sin productive of so many hideous consequences.”  Swiss neurologist (and Vatican advisor) Samuel-Auguste Tissot (1728-97) elaborated on the dangers of the “secret sin” at length in his 1760 treatise L’Onanisme, published under its subtitle as Diseases Caused by Masturbation, concluding that the loss of semen through masturbation produced the following consequences:


“…a perceptible reduction of strength, of memory and even of reason; blurred vision, all the nervous disorders, all types of gout and rheumatism, weakening of the organs of generation, blood in the urine, disturbance of the appetite, headaches and a great number of other disorders.”


With tongue in cheek, humorist Mark Twain (1835-1910) offered the following assessment in one of his 1879 lectures:


“So, in concluding, I say: If you must gamble away your life sexually, don’t play a Lone Hand too much.  When you feel a revolutionary uprising in your system, get your Vendome Column down some other way — don’t jerk it down.”


Twain had at last made it acceptable to discuss the topic with humor instead of the horror many of his predecessors had felt on encountering it.  James Joyce made references to it (as “sins of impurity”) in his autobiographical Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (1916) and finally tackled it head-on in monumental novel Ulysses (1922), commenting, “You have to get rid of it someway.” 

     Jean Genet mentions it in Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), and by 1968 it was officially removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders (DSMII).  It recurs as an inventive plot device throughout Philip Roth’s exceptional Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), which opened the proverbial floodgates of literary licentiousness.  Both The Sensuous Woman (1969) and The Sensuous Man (1971) –  each written primarily by Joan Garrity (with occasional help from her brother John and her boyfriend Len) and published under pseudonyms – gave readers detailed tips on using masturbation to enhance sexual pleasure overall.  John Updike weighed in on the subject in his 1971 novel Rabbit Redux, one of many sequels to Rabbit, Run (mentioned under Topic M above).  Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973) took up the refrain, illustrating how masturbation can be almost as fulfilling for some as intercourse, if not more so.  Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz commented in 1973, “Masturbation: the primary sexual activity of [hu]mankind.  In the nineteenth century it was a disease; in the twentieth, it’s a cure” (The Second Sin).



6Suggestive drawings or photos are enough to trigger objections.  They are after all an artist’s visualizations of something believed to be forbidden because of its potentially corrupting influence.  French commercial artist Paul Avril (1849-1928) illustrated a great deal of erotica, having studied art in the sex salons of Paris.  His drawing Les charmes de Fanny exposés for the English novel Fanny Hill is quite explicit in terms of anatomical detail and sexual intent, yet nothing that couldn’t be displayed in a fine art gallery (at least in Europe).

     Often it’s the lurid covers that elicited bans – or at least demands for revised editions with less provocative artwork.  If these editions are available at all now, they are expensive collectors’ items. 






     Kurt Vonnegut added crude drawings to Breakfast of Champions (1973) – one of a vulva, another of an anus, another of a pair of panties, among others – that provoked objections from some readers.  It’s usually challenged for other reasons, among them crossdressing, determinism, homosexuality, inequality, racism, and suicide. 

     Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban (1992) contains nude drawings of Adam and Eve.  It’s most often banned because of its subplot involving santería, a syncretistic religion found throughout the Caribbean that some Christians equate with Satanism.  Daniel Haack’s Prince & Knight (2018), illustrated by Stevie Lewis, tells the story of a prince who falls in love with and then marries a knight.  Critics allege that the vivid illustrations “sexualize” children by promoting the gay agenda.  Even educational books intended for children over seven may be challenged for taking a liberal attitude toward the subject.  Cory Silverberg’s Sex Is a Funny Word (2015), illustrated by Fiona Smith, raised objection to the title and the book’s references to the sex drive, gender identity, and sexual orientation might prompt children “want to have sex or ask questions about sex.”  Heaven knows this never happens on its own.  













2AIDS and other STIs



1Misogyny comprises a variety of negative attitudes toward women, including but not limited to hatred.  It began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam, seeking to assuage his own guilt for eating the forbidden fruit, informs God, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (Genesis 3:12).  Greek poet Hesiod probably appended the myth of Pandora’s Jar – which was not originally the better-known Box – to his didactic poem Works and Days (ca. 700 BCE) owing to a personal vendetta against he may have had a certain woman in his life – his mother, his wife, a daughter, a lover who spurned him – who can say? 

     Books that purportedly exclude or objectify women, like Ernest Hemingway’s short story collection Men Without Women (1927), which focuses on male bonding, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which presents women as occasional roadside attractions, top the list.  The literature of misogyny has been identified as such largely by feminist critics, and not all agree in their opinions.  A few consider Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women (1869) a misogynistic novel because it extols traditional sex roles.  In spite of the insightful (and popular) 2019 film adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig, some feminists expected the author to have broken with tradition, as her near-contemporaries Mary Shelley (1797-1851), George Eliot (1819-80), and Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) had done in Europe.  Other critics, some of them feminists, praise Little Women for its forward-looking depiction of women’s ambitions, even if these are a bit conventional.  Authors who don’t write for contemporary readers risk oblivion during their own lifetimes.  Alcott had her finger on the pulse of Reconstructionist America, and her work has been rediscovered (and reappraised) from generation to generation.  We should all be so lucky! 

     Other critics have challenged Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter on similar grounds.  Others challenge it because its heroine, Hester Prynne, bears a child out of wedlock (an example of Sexuality, Topic S above), doesn’t reunite with her husband (an example of Family dysfunction, Topic N above), and never fully reconciles with the Puritans (a Criticism of religion, Topic T above). They believe Hester should have named her partner and then left Puritan Boston a lot earlier in the story.  They don’t always realize that the novel is a fictional study of the pressures to conform that society brings to bear on the individual. 

     Helen Andelin’s 1963 self-help study Fascinating Womanhood, though still in print, has been challenged for promoting unrealistic expectations of love, romance, and marriage.  To what extent, they ask, can romantic fantasies be made reality, especially on a typical household budget?  Marabel Morgan’s Total Woman (1973) and Elisabeth Elliot’s Let Me Be a Woman (1976) drew the same kind of ire for prioritizing a man’s view of marriage and family over his wife’s. Both books sold heavily among the American evangelical readers, many of whom disdained (and occasionally challenged) feminist classics like Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949 in French, 1953 in English, new translation 2009; mentioned under Criticism of religion, Topic T above), Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963), Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1969), and Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch (1970).

     In addition to Hemingway, a number of “he-man” authors (who wrote for a predominantly male audience) are singled out for their alleged sexism, much of it involving unsympathetic or stilted portrayals of women in their fiction: D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), mostly for his 1920 novel Women in Love; Robert Ruark (1915-65), mostly for The Honey Badger (1965); Roald Dahl (1916-90), mostly for the short story collection Switch Bitch (1974); James Jones (1921-77), mostly for From Here to Eternity (1951); and Norman Mailer (1923-2007), mostly for The Naked and the Dead (1948).  It didn’t help Mailer’s reputation that in a 1962 Playboy article he bemoaned “the womanization of America.”  Some extend their criticism to authors like Saul Bellow (1915-2005), specifically for The Adventures of Augie March (1953); Charles Bukowski (1920-94), specifically for Women (1978); and Philip Roth (1933-2018), specifically for American Pastoral (1997) – and possibly for his 1972 effort The Breast, which (somewhat predictably) flopped.  Florence King (gently) lampoons the writing styles of several male authors, and especially the ways they characterize women, in He: An Irreverent Look at the American Male (1978), which was challenged because its author admits to having engaged in premarital sex.  Her (least) favorite misogynist is Ben Ames Williams (1889-1953), author of Lady in Peril (1922), The Strange Woman (1941), and Leave Her to Heaven (1944).


2AIDS and other STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections) turn up in literature occasionally.  William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes fleeting references to syphilis in Troilus and Cressida (1602), All’s Well That Ends Well (ca. 1606), and Timon of Athens (1606).  His mention of “pocky corpses” in Act V of Hamlet (1601) is thought to be a reference to it, albeit an anachronistic one.  Voltaire (1694-1778) mentions syphilis, then popularly known as “the pox,” in Candide (1759).  Its brilliant blabbermouth Dr. Pangloss claims to have cured his own case of the disease.  Candide is usually banned for other reasons, chief among them its irreverence.  French authors Alphonse Daudet (1840-97), author of Letters from My Windmill (1869 in French, 1978 in English) and Guy de Maupassant (1850-93), author of Bel-Ami (1885) both contracted syphilis and died young from its effects.  Daudet chronicled his suffering in In the Land of Pain (1930 in French, 2002 in English).  (His works are also challenged because of his avowed anti-Semitism, by the way.)  Maupassant in particular wrote several popular stories featuring cheating spouses, prostitutes, and brothels – yet never in a sensational or overwrought style.  Before the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, treatments were often more painful than the disease itself, which can ultimately debilitate the mind, as it did with Maupassant, who famously refused treatment and remained promiscuous through the course of his disease, which eventually drove him insane.  J.K. Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884 in French, 1926 in English, as Against the Grain) linked syphilis to late 19th-century decadence generally.  Because it addresses homosexuality, it is widely considered an early gay novel that influenced Oscar Wilde.  As such it has been published under the title Against Nature.  Copies were presented at the English author’s trial as evidence of moral dissolution that had recently swept the Continent.

     Influential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was once widely believed to have died from complications of the disease, which many critics maintain affected his writing.  More recently that theory has been disputed.  Nietzsche’s works, including Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-92 in German, 1896 in English) and The Antichrist (1888 in German, 1918 in English) are usually challenged because of their author’s strong criticism of Christianity.

     The main character’s son in Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts (1881 in Danish, 1882 in English) is living through the final stages of syphilis.  Though now largely forgotten (due in part to censorship), Michael Arlen’s 1924 bestseller The Green Hat tackled both homosexuality and syphilis during the 20th century’s first sexual revolution.  Later stage and screen adaptations, including A Woman of Affairs (1928) and Outcast Lady (1934), not only excised both these plot elements but also made no mention of the source novel’s title, lest respectable moviegoers make the unpleasant connection.    

     François Rabelais (ca. 1490-1553) described the symptoms of gonorrhea in Book II of his massive Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-64 in French, 1653-93 in English).  Long hailed as a classic, this bodaciously bawdy pentalogy has been censored on various grounds for centuries.  Giacomo Casanova’s infamous racy memoirs, originally written in French from 1789 to the author’s death in 1798, published in abridged form in English as The Story of My Life (1822 in German, 1838 in French, and 1894 in English) make mention of several STIs.  The unabridged version finally saw the light of day in 1962.  Though mostly a journal of erotic fantasies with little basis in history, the book is banned for its author’s rampant promiscuity.

     Herpes turns up in Carlos Kotkin’s humorous Please God Let It Be Herpes: A Heartfelt Quest for Love and Companionship (2012).  A number of dating guides have been published for those infected with herpes simplex II, among them Live, Love and Thrive with Herpes: A Holistic Guide for Woman (2013).  While we’re on the subject of viral infections, humorist Jonathan Ames (1964-  ) details a bout with a genital wart in his 2006 collection I Love You More Than You Know: Essays.

     AIDS was brought to the fore by Armistead Maupin (1944-  ) in his “Tales of the City” column in the San Francisco Chronicle, which were eventually published as a series of novels.  His 1984 novel Babycakes, the fourth in a series of nine novels, begins with the AIDS-related death of one the main characters.  The narrative explores his survivors’ grief – and guilt – as we follow the impact of AIDS on real people, gay and straight alike.  Readers initially objected to the introduction of such a controversial, polarizing topic into their light breakfast reading, which some regarded as funnies for adults, even though the disease was devastating the gay community (and other marginalized groups) at the time.  No doubt making imagining it would never affect them personally, the general public tried to ignore the issue.  Then-president Ronald Reagan didn’t mention it until June 1987 – six years into his term.  Samuel R. Delany (1942-  ) details the epidemic’s effect on African Americans in his story “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, or, Some Informal Remarks toward the Modular Calculus, Part Five,” collected in Flight from Nevèrÿon.  Chris Crutcher (1946-  ) drew on his experiences as a family therapist to write his YA collection Athletic Shorts: Six Short Stories (1991).  The book won the School Library Journal’s Best Book of the Year award in 1992 but has become one of the most frequently challenged books in the country due to its treatment of child abuse, eating disorders, homosexuality, and AIDS – all taboo topics for modern-day moralists.         




with the reasons for each objection below























with the reasons for each objection below











with the reasons for each objection below
















Morally offensive


Dangerously indecent


Banned in 27 countries



An outrageous onslaught…


Vile and disgusting


Repulsive and unnatural










Pornography disguised as art





A sick…







Pornography of violence












Obscene, indecent… inhuman



D K Q? S

[A] fractured love-in…weird






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