Screw authority—read the banned books.
I can’t believe that in 2023 we’re still having conversations around banned books. It feels like we’ve progressed in leaps and bounds as a society since this conversation began, but alas—people are still clutching their pearls and trying to police what books can and can’t be read.
The next Banned Books Week isn’t until October 1-7, but the topic has been in the news as of late due to a few states (namely, Florida and Iowa) making some serious waves due to their school districts cracking down on what books will be in their libraries for the upcoming school year.
As it increasingly feels like Fahrenheit 451 around here, I’m here to implore you this simple sentiment: read the banned books.
The Banned Books That Changed My Life
As an English literature major, I’ve spent the majority of my academic career reading. A huge chunk of the books I read or excerpts I studied and analyzed were from banned books.
Here’s where it gets crazy—I didn’t like every single banned book I read. Some of them were 100% controversial, and I didn’t necessarily agree with what they were saying. But guess what? I still see the significance, within the literary canon and outside of it. They still need to be read. Limiting access to these texts benefits no one.
So if you’re ready to shirk authority and read some hotly contested texts, here are the 10 banned books that changed my life.
1. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Reason it was banned: excessive vulgar language, sexual scenes, and things containing moral issues.
Any book referenced by multiple criminals as their inspiration for inciting violence is bound to be wrapped up in controversy. But J.D. Salinger’s sole complete novel is the ultimate coming of age story that should continue to be read in high schools around the country.
The novel spans a weekend following narrator (unreliable or otherwise) Holden Caufield as he spends time in New York. While exploring one of the busiest cities in the world, he’s increasingly isolated as his emotional state rapidly deteriorates. Iconic, divisive, and one of the most banned books of the past 100 years, Salinger’s work perfectly encapsulates losing innocence as a youth.
2. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Reason it was banned: explicit sexual scenes, violence, and obscene language.
Vonnegut is no stranger to the banned books list. Most of his works have been banned at one point in time or another. Slaughterhouse-Five, arguably his most well-known novel, follows Billy Pilgrim during the events of World War II and thereafter.
Part historical fiction, part science fiction, Vonnegut expertly weaves his own WWII experiences into Billy’s. That’s not to mention Billy’s post-war struggles with PTSD. Thoroughly post-modern in nature, Vonnegut explores the meaninglessness of existence, asking the reader to do the same.
3. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Reason it was banned: obscenity, vulgarity, promotion of adult themes.
No surprise that the novel with the lines, “orgy-porgy” would quickly make its way onto the banned books list. Brave New World centers around a dystopian society that’s divided into a caste system, with each person’s caste being dictated from birth (which has been streamlined into a factory-like process). The people created in these labs are reprogrammed and conditioned to behave in accordance with their caste system. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Many modern scholars argue that Huxley nearly predicted future events with Brave New World. Technology and control are central themes of the novel, and it’s easy to see how quickly we’re approaching a society similar to that presented in the novel. Haunting, but a must-read regardless.
4. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Reason it was banned: profanity, sexual themes, and promiscuity.
Hemingway’s anti-war sentiments actually got him on an FBI watchlist for most of his life, so of course his novels found their way onto most banned books lists. But the beauty of The Sun Also Rises needs to be available for readers to explore.
Following a cast of ex-pats and their friends around Europe after World War I, Hemingway presents the modernist idea of, “What’s the point of life?” After seeing the atrocities of trench warfare, Hemingway indulged in a life of decadence, all of which is seen throughout The Sun Also Rises.
5. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
Reason it was banned: explicit sexual content.
Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer had such a hard ban on it that, at one point, it was illegal to mail it in with the U.S. Postal Service. Another ex-pat bumming around in France after World War I, Miller weaves autobiography with fiction in this important piece of literature.
Miller’s candid writing paved the way for free speech in literature in the 20th century and is widely regarded as one of the most important novels of all time. Meditating on the human condition, asking questions that don’t have answers, and exploring what love actually is, Tropic of Cancer is packed with wisdom from beginning to end.
6. The Holy Bible
Reason it was banned: vulgarity and violence.
Yep, you read that correctly. The Holy Bible is one of the top 100 banned books in the previous decade (2010-2019).
Despite the fact that our country prides itself on religious freedom, the cornerstone text from the religion practiced by 63% of the population is commonly banned in libraries around the country. Does anyone else see the great irony here?
7. The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
Reason it was banned: profanity and sexual content.
Books that highlight the brutality and, at times, senselessness of war tend to find their way on the list of banned books. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is no exception. A collection of short stories, O’Brien focuses on a platoon of men during the Vietnam War. Certainly a controversy within a controversy.
The titular story deals with love and loss, throwing the everyday mundanity of being deployed in sharp contrast with combat. Each story easily stands on its own, reminding readers of the deep sacrifice that occurred during the Vietnam War.
8. The Giver, Lois Lowry
Reason it was banned: violence and sexually suggestive content.
I first read The Giver when I was in 8th grade, and it was my first exposure to banned books. It was an assigned text from my Language Arts teacher, and I went in not knowing anything about it.
Fast-forward to when I finished the book, completely floored by the major plot twist (I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated). I didn’t realize books could talk about sensitive and taboo topics. It challenged my ideals and morals as a reader, along with my preconceived ideas about society as a whole. I’m forever grateful I had the opportunity to read this book during such a formative time in my life.
9. American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
Reason it was banned: graphic violence and misogyny.
This is one of the few books I can’t argue too hard about when I find out it’s been banned. I still think everyone should have equal access to books, but when I find out other countries have Ellis’ book shrink wrapped and behind a counter, I understand why. Most people have probably seen the movie adaptation of this work, but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the graphic violence inside the novel.
As we see Patrick Bateman escalate as a killer, we as readers are faced with a dilemma on who is really the protagonist of the novel. While it clearly isn’t Bateman, we can’t root for his superficial yuppie acquaintances, either. In turn, you’re left wondering what it says about society as a whole.
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Reason it was banned: violence and anti-government sentiments.
Speak out against the government? You better believe a book like that is going to be banned, and fast! Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 actually deals with the topic of burning books. Quite the irony, don’t you agree?
In this dystopian version of America, all books have been deemed illegal, with “firemen” burning any that are found. We follow protagonist Guy Montag, a fireman turned literary advocate. Montag becomes disillusioned with censoring books. Partly a commentary on mass media and the reduction of written text, Bradbury is another novelist who came startlingly close to predicting future events.
We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Erasing the history presented in these texts will only set us up for future failures. Read the banned books. And fight for them to continue to be read.