In celebration of Banned Books Week – Sept 25-Oct 1 – here’s some great literature that governments banned at one time or another. Rather than the usual suspects — Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita, the Harry Potter series (witchcraft!), and pretty much everything Orwell and Solzhenitzyn wrote — I’ve gone for a few of the more surprisingly banned titles. The list covers four continents, six nationalities, and all the vices you can think of.
1. Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
Pasternak couldn’t get his masterpiece published in the USSR because it critiqued Socialism. At the instigation of the legendary publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the manuscript was smuggled to Milan, where it finally saw the light of day in 1957. The following year Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, but was forbidden by his government from accepting it. Within two years he was dead of lung cancer. In 1988, Pasternak’s family accepted the award on his behalf.
2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Carroll’s 1865 masterpiece has entranced and offended generations of readers in almost equal measure. At some point or other it’s been banned for promoting drug use (OK, the caterpillar sitting on a mushroom while puffing on a hookah pipe is fairly unambiguous); sexual content; and talking animals. It’s also one of the most quoted books of all time.
3. The Children of Gebelawi – Naguib Mahfouz
The Egyptian Nobel Laureate’s 1959 novel (sometimes known as Children of the Alley) about patriarchy, religion, and a family feud was banned all over the Arabic world. Critics said the hero, Gebelawi, was a blasphemous representation of God. The assassination attempt on Mahfouz by Islamic extremists in 1994 was a direct consequence of the book’s content, but Mahfouz still had the guts to speak out against the fatwa issued on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses.
4. An Area of Darkness – V.S. Naipaul
When Naipaul squints at the world and begins sharpening his pencil, nothing is sacred. In this 1964 travelogue about India, he calls his ancestral homeland “the world’s largest slum” and describes Indians as “a withered race of men.” India banned the book immediately.
5. A World of Strangers – Nadime Gordimer
South African novelist Gordimer claimed that “I am not a political person by nature. I don’t suppose, if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.” But in Apartheid and the terrible injustices brought about by systemic racism, she found her theme. This 1958 book was the first of three Gordimer novels to be banned in South Africa.
6. El Señor Presidente – Miguel Asturias
Technically speaking, this great novel wasn’t banned; its publication was delayed for thirteen years by the Guatemalan government before it was finally published in 1946. The book portrays a ruthless, corrupt dictator with an uncanny resemblance to Manuel Estrada Cabrera, Guatemala’s very own ruthless, corrupt dictator who ruled from 1898 to 1920.
7. The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer
In the U.S., the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873 prohibited the sending or receiving of “obscene” or “filthy” works through the U.S. mail. Chaucer, to the pleasure of several generations of British schoolboys, was on occasion extremely, delightfully, disgustingly filthy. And so his tales, 500 years after they were first published, were temporarily grounded in the U.S.